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Crime & Courts

Anchorage 20-year-old who killed his mother and sister in 2016 goes free after aging out of juvenile justice system

A young Anchorage man who fatally shot his mother and sister more than four years ago admitted to the crimes Monday, but will not be sentenced to any additional punishment because he has now aged out of the juvenile justice system after turning 20 in March.

The case has been tangled in judicial appeals for the last four years as attorneys debated whether Corbin Duke should be tried as an adult, despite the fact that he was 15 when he killed his family members. Duke turned 20 shortly after the Alaska Supreme Court ruled the case would remain in the juvenile system. Anchorage Superior Court Judge Kevin Saxby said Monday during the first and only hearing of case to be held publicly that Duke had aged out of the system because of limitations within the juvenile court.

Anchorage Assistant District Attorney Patrick McKay said the killings were “cold-blooded, execution-style murders,” while public defender John Bernitz called Duke’s rehabilitation an “amazing success story” and said that he has strong support from his surviving family members.

McKay asked the court Monday a question he said he felt was now at the heart of the case — “What do we do with Mr. Duke?”

On Jan. 5, 2016, Shannon Duke woke up her son, Corbin, in the early morning, McKay said. He’d been out “all night” and was annoyed, McKay said. Corbin Duke woke and did his chores that morning while his mother ran errands with his 3-year-old sister.

Shannon Duke returned home and took a nap that afternoon with her toddler sleeping at the foot of her bed, McKay said. Earlier that day, Corbin Duke had found a gun and stashed it in his bedroom, according to McKay. Bernitz said the teen went shooting with his father and there were numerous guns in the home. Corbin Duke grabbed the weapon and walked into 40-year-old Shannon Duke’s bedroom, where he shot his sleeping mother in the back of the head, McKay said. Corbin Duke then walked down the stairs and followed his older sister, 18-year-old Chloe Duke, when she headed upstairs after hearing the gunshot, McKay said. He then shot her in the back of the head on the stairway.

Afterward, he returned to his mother’s room, picked up his 3-year-old sister and “covered her face as he stepped over his sister’s dead body,” McKay said. He took the keys to his family’s truck and began driving to their cabin in Big Lake with his sister.

Police arrived at the house when Corbin Duke’s father returned home and called for help after finding his daughter dead on the stairs. Corbin Duke was taken into custody by police and eventually said he’d shot his mother because he “was just finally done with everyone nagging,” according to an Alaska Supreme Court opinion issued in January of this year. Corbin Duke had potentially been abusing prescription medication and marijuana, the opinion said. His mother had removed him from school and he was being homeschooled.

The teen also told investigators he “woke up doing it” and didn’t remember harming his family, according to the opinion.

Corbin Duke was detained at the McLaughlin Youth Center shortly after. During the beginning of his time at the facility, he stole from another resident, planned a potentially violent escape and scrawled profanities on the wall of his cell using his own blood, according to the opinion. A forensic psychologist testified that on a scale going up to 100, Duke scored in the 78th percentile on a of all juvenile offenders on a test of risk for future danger, the opinion said.

From that point, court motions volleyed the case back and forth between different systems in the state. First, the state pushed to have Duke tried as an adult. Juvenile courts only have the ability to hold a person until they reach age 20, which was roughly four years in this case, while an adult could be sentenced up to 99 years in prison for each count of first-degree murder. Alaska state law rules that certain crimes, like murder, are automatically waived into adult court if the offender is 16 years old. Duke was only a few months shy of 16 when the shooting occurred, Bernitz said.

The state’s motion was approved 15 months later, but then the case was sent to the state Court of Appeals, where it remained for another 19 months.

The case was then deferred to the state Supreme Court, which eventually handed it back to Judge Saxby in juvenile court. Although the Supreme Court took up the case on “an emergency basis because so much time had already passed,” McKay said the opinion was not issued until January of 2020.

Prosecutors again argued that Duke should be tried as an adult, but after a three-week hearing in February, Saxby ruled against the motion. Bernitz said that several experts testified during the hearing about drastic changes in Duke that showed he could be rehabilitated.

Bernitz said much of Duke’s rehabilitation was due to support from his father, surviving sister and his faith.

“The father started visiting Corbin within months, maybe three months, I think,” Bernitz said. “How this family put up with that type of emotion and what happened to it and still support him is an inspiration to everyone.”

The decision meant Duke’s case would continue with proceedings in the juvenile court system — however, Duke turned 20 just days after the waiver hearing concluded. The juvenile court system can’t impose orders on anyone above age 20.

Duke left the youth detention center on his birthday and the court no longer has the authority or jurisdiction to impose detention or supervised release orders. Saxby warned him during Monday’s hearing that he would not be allowed to own a gun in Alaska because he committed a crime against a person and he could violate federal law if he ever decides to purchase a firearm elsewhere.

Prosecutors argued for the final hearing, which was held Monday, to be open because “the public had a right to know,” according to the order. Juvenile proceedings are traditionally kept private. Bernitz said he felt the decision caused further harm to Duke’s father and sister.

Bernitz said juvenile courts are designed to create different forms of punishment that are better suited to reforming young people who may not have been fully cognizant of the depth of their decisions. He said his client takes full accountability for the crime and has proved his remorse to his family.

“We treat our children differently than we treat our adults,” Bernitz said. “... As a 15 year old, his brain wasn’t developed, he was at risk, he didn’t understand the consequences of his actions involved in there and he also had incredible potential to grow out of this. So the idea that we treat our children differently under the law is one that I will stand here and defend any day of the week, all day long. There’s many many serious crimes that children do where they should not be held to the same punishment standard as adults.”

While the juvenile system no longer had power to impose a punishment on Duke, he did still have the right to a fair trial. Corbin Duke admitted to the murders of his mother and sister and to vehicle theft during Monday’s hearing.

“There’s nothing else that the court can do in this case, except hope that Mr. Duke abides by the law in the future,” McKay said.

After the hearing, Duke walked out the doors of the Nesbett Courthouse and onto Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage.

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