To say Joshua Young has had a troubled childhood may be a bit of an understatement. Growing up, his world saw abuse, neglect and some uniquely traumatic events -- up to and including the trial that now has him facing a potential sentence of life in prison.
Young, 17, is charged with "complicity to murder" and "complicity to tampering with physical evidence" in the 2011 beating death of his 14-year-old stepbrother, Trey Zwicker. Josh Gouker, Young's father and Zwicker's stepfather, was sentenced Friday to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years in his stepson's death.
See more: Joshua Young on trial: The family tree
Zwicker was beaten to death on May 10, 2011. After initially blaming the murder on his son, Gouker confessed to the crime, claiming that he "snapped" when he confronted Zwicker about stealing from him. Gouker has since repeatedly said he acted alone and has tried to deflect any responsibility from Young. Despite Gouker changing his tune and pleading guilty to the murder, prosecutors are going forward with the charges against Young, who's being tried as an adult.
In an interview with HLN affiliate WHAS, Gouker said, “That’s what we wanted them to think, that Josh did it, because he’s a juvenile, he’d get less time.”
One of the big questions surrounding Young's trial is whether the teen was actively involved in his stepbrother’s killing or if he's just a victim of his environment, guilty only of sticking with his dad. Some experts have used Young’s troubled childhood and age at the time of the crime -- 15 -- to explain how he may not have understood right from wrong.
Watch more: Is Joshua Young guilty by association?
“What I say is don’t judge him by the father,” said Janet Johnson, criminal defense attorney and frequent guest on HLN After Dark. “[Joshua] is a child and a product of a broken environment, and that doesn’t make him Big Josh. He deserves reasonable doubt and presumption of innocence.”
It was only a year before Zwicker's death that Young was at the center of another tragedy. On Easter Sunday in April 2010, Young found his mother dead from a drug overdose in their home in Louisville, Kentucky. The teen then moved around the foster care system for a few months, before ultimately finding a home in September 2010 with the Stoneburners, where he appeared to be happy, did well in school and was focused on his future, according to court records.
But it wasn’t long before Young fell back into his old life. His father, Josh Gouker, was released from prison in 2010 and ultimately regained custody of Young in March 2011. Gouker has a violent criminal history, including charges of robbery, assault and now murder. Less than two months after Joshua went to live with his father, his stepbrother, Zwicker, was found dead.
Following Zwicker’s death, Gouker took Young and attempted to flee to Venezuela, according to information obtained by police during a phone call Gouker made from jail. The two made it as far as Alabama before they were arrested after Gouker held a woman at gunpoint, attempting to force her to drive them.
Watch more: Joshua Young & dad on the run
In a police interview conducted after authorities brought Young and his father back to Louisville, Gouker talked about drinking and “smoking weed” the night before Zwicker’s death. Allegations made in court records claimed Gouker often gave his son drugs, and the household was also filled with domestic abuse and inappropriate sexual activities.
When Gouker was sentenced for Zwicker's murder, his sentence also included two counts of animal torture for allegedly beating a dog to death with a bat and throwing a cat out of a second-story window. Young allegedly filmed his father beating the dog to death.
Though his life with the Stoneburners had seemed like a bright spot, Young didn’t resist going back to live with his dad. During a police interrogation, a detective said to Joshua, “While your dad was in prison, you got to admit, you had [a] much better situation.” Young replied, “I mean I love my dad more than anybody in this world. And, I’d rather be with him than anybody in this world. My life is much better with my dad. “
“So, your life was better getting arrested in Alabama?” the detective asked. “Being with my dad, it’s all worth it,” Young said.
Watch more: Joshua Young attorney calls dad ‘manipulator’
Referring to Young and his actions related to his stepbrother’s murder, prosecutors in the case used the phrase "the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree." So was Joshua set up to fail all along because of who his father is?
“There are going to be certain traits that go from father to son, and he may have a streak of violence in him,” said Monica Lindstrom, criminal defense attorney and frequent guest on HLN After Dark. “[Joshua] might not respect other people, like his father clearly doesn’t respect anybody but himself, but that isn’t what we have in this case. We have a young man with no evidence whatsoever that he helped, counseled, aided, solicited his father to kill his stepbrother. And that’s the law in his case."