By Jennifer Dobner
A teenage Somali refugee facing prison after pleading guilty to sexual assault and kidnapping charges in adult court will remain in a secure juvenile detention facility until he nears age 21, a Utah judge said Tuesday.
The decision delays a sentencing hearing for 18-year-old Mohammed Ali Mohammed on his adult criminal conviction until October of 2017. He will turn 21 in early 2018.
Mohammed has been housed at the Wasatch Youth Center since 2012, after pleading guilty to assaults on two women on successive days in 2011, when he was just 14.
One case was handled in juvenile court — where he pleaded guilty to three felony-level crimes. In the second attack, Mohammed, pleaded guilty to first-degree felony rape, second-degree felony forcible sexual assault and kidnapping.
The dual-track resolution of the case is rare and left the courts in "unchartered territory," 3rd District Court Judge Vernice Trease said Tuesday.
Earlier this year, juvenile justice officials determined Mohammed had progressed sufficiently to consider releasing him to supervised parole. That prompted the courts to set a sentencing date on the adult charges.
After a hearing last week, Trease delayed sentencing to consider additional information, including whether the youth center could continue to house and treat Mohammed.
On Tuesday, Stephanie Sinju, the center's director assured Trease that would happen and that no recommendations for Mohammed's release would be forwarded to youth corrections authorities. Mohammed is set for a hearing before the youth parole board in July, she said.
"We'll ask for his continued stay in our custody," Sinju said.
Prosecutors said they had always believed the terms of the plea agreement included keeping Mohammed in a secure detention facility until age 21.
The victim in Mohammed's adult case had no objection to the decision, her attorney told the court. "The only objection would be if he were to be released," Spencer Banks said.
With that, Trease ordered Mohammed held until his 21st birthday "or whenever the juvenile system is ready to parole him, whichever comes first," and set a review hearing for February 2016. In addition, Trease put a no bail warrant in place, to ensure that if Mohammed's release were proposed, he would be transferred to a county jail.
After the hearing, Salt Lake County prosecutor Patricia Cassell said the state would likely still seek a prison term once Mohammed is out of youth detention, but for now, she believes this is the right decision, particularly because of teen's background.
Mohammed faces a sentence of up to life in prison on the rape charge and terms of one to 15 years each on the sexual assault and kidnapping counts.
Mohammed was born in a Somali refugee camp where he saw his brother killed by a robber, witnessed a rape and was himself the victim of sexual abuse, according to testimony at earlier proceedings.
On Aug. 14, 2011, the teen allegedly came up behind a woman who was outside her house with a dog and held a four-inch switchblade to her throat. He threatened to cut her if she screamed, the charges state, then raped her behind the home.
The following night, the boy broke into another woman's home. He looked through drawers in the house before raping the woman, according to charging documents. The teen then forced the woman to go to an ATM and withdraw $400 for him, the charges state.