BANGOR, Maine (NEWS CENTER)-- The Attorney General's office handles all of the state's murder and manslaughter cases. They face a tough decision when on the rare occasion the murder suspect is a child. A juvenile who commits a crime may lack mental development but imagine that child being thrown into an adult prison.There is a real danger they might face abuse or be led deeper down the road of crime.
In 2005, 14-year old Marlee Johnston was beaten to death with a bat. A vicious murder even more shocking because it was at the hands of her neighbor, Patrick Armstrong, who was also 14.
Marlee's father, Ted Johnston, still deals with the hurt from the loss of his daughter, "It never gets better. Time doesn't heal. You just get better at dealing with it."
The death of Marlee Johnston shook many happening in a quiet, close knit community. Marlee and Patrick grew up together only a few doors down.
Marlee's mother Marlene Thibodeau said, "We knew him as a very young babe. We watched him grow."
This cold-blooded murder caused the state to decide to try Patrick as an adult. He was only 15 years old when convicted.
Deputy Attorney General Bill Stokes prosecuted Patrick he said, "There were circumstances about that case that the juvenile system was not adequate to deal."
The state wanted Patrick in custody for about 20 years. Within the juvenile system offenders can only be kept until the age of 21 which would have been six years. Even with the horrendous nature of the crime, the thought of throwing a 15 year old boy into an adult prison caused some concerns.
Johnston said, "We couldn't bear to think of what might happen. The idea of putting him in a situation that would be extremely harmful...we had mixed feelings."
Stokes said, "They felt the same way we did that we wanted to balance his youth with the seriousness of the offense."
The state noticed a flaw in the way it handled juvenile offenders. The Attorney General's office wanted Patrick to have a bind over which would allow him to serve part of his sentence in a youth center before transferring to an adult prison.
"It's not just about throwing people in jail. A lot of it is about that, but when you're dealing with a young offender you really have to be aware that maybe that person has to pay the price, but needs some time to make that transition," said Stokes.
Youth centers offer rehabilitation programs for juveniles, giving them a chance to grow mentally and physically. They are put into therapy to get to the root of the problem and encouraged to continue their education.
"We wanted to make sure if there was any hope at all for Pat that he would have that opportunity...I was angry, I was confused. Sometimes still, but I didn't want to vengeful." said Thibodeau.
Marlee's parent went before state lawmakers to push for a new law so that offenders like Patrick had a chance to be saved.
The law highlights only the most heinous crimes, like murder. Under the law a juvenile under 16 facing an adult charge can more easily attain a bind over sentence. The child can serve the first part of their term in a youth center until the age of 18 where they will be transferred to an adult prison.
Stokes said, "It was a way of protecting that person, but also say well society has an interest in this child's future because at some point this person is going to get out...we want to do whatever we can to ensure that person can be a productive, law-abiding member of society."
The Johnston's say it was not for Patrick that they helped put the law in place, but as parents they wanted to salvage as many children as they can.
"There's no closure, that's at least for me, there's no closure every moment of everyday I hurt from the loss of my daughter," explained Johnston.
The Johnston family continues to hold events and scholarships in Marlee's name to keep her memory alive.
Patrick continues to grow up behind bars at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. He was placed in the Mountain View Youth Development Center until he turned 18 where he received counseling and schooling. It was the therapy and strict regiment of the youth center that Armstrong credits for his current state of mind.
Patrick Armstong said, "They make you put in the work and even if you are reluctant at first, the fact that they are putting in the time with you and saying, 'Even if you're not ready now. We'll be here when you're ready.' It's just tremendously beneficial."
The juvenile system pushes for therapy and educational programs for young offenders.
Barry Stoodley with Maine's juvenile services says it is in the best interest of both the offender and the public.
Stoodley said, "Punishment and holding a juvenile accountable is important, but it's mostly around rehabilitation and safety and making good to the extent possible on the crime that's been committed."
Juvenile inmates are made to attend therapy sessions along with continuing their education.
Patrick received one on one therapy along with family therapy to udnerstand his actions and how to turn a terrible situation around.
"Just kind of being able to broaden my own perceptions of the situation...and to understand kind of the central concept that's at the heart of all the therapy they do which is the idea of empathy. Which of course from the outside it seems simple and then in the moment is not at all and as soon as you realize things aren't about me. Things are about other people, things are about society, about other people, the community," explained Patrick.
According to Patrick, the youth center pushed him to be better and salvage a life that may have been lost otherwise.
"The person I was at 15 is almost unrecognizable from the person I am today...I've grown in ways emotionally, in ways I couldn't begin to describe. My relationships with people are so much better. I'm so much more of a calm person," said Patrick.
But he knows the opportunity to salvage his own life came at the price of another.
"I wish that all of it could be taken back. Knowing at the time what irreparable harm you've done to a person, to a family, to a community, knowing that and then being able to look and see them still say 'We can help. We know there's something we can do, even if you don't feel like you deserve it,'" said the 21-year old.
Patrick admits no matter what he does to turn his life around it won't make up for his past, and the family he destroyed.
Patrick said, "There's no way to express that or put it into words. There's no action I could possibly do that could apologize for the damage that I've done."
Patrick Armstrong will remain at the maine Correctional Center until 2023. After, he will be released into society for the first time in 18 years. Patrick knows he will have to prove he is a changed person and it is a challenge he is willing to accept.
"There's no way for me to say it. I can't go up to someone and say look at me, I'm better because going back to the cliché actions speak louder than words. And I will have to prove it. I will have to prove it probably every day of my life here after," said Patrick.