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Kids shouldn't be tried in adult court

August 13, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
Why does this country try children and young teenagers as adults?

Every time a story comes across the wire about an 11, 12 ,13 or 14-year-old on trial for murder, I shake my head at the injustice of a system that holds a child as culpable for a crime as an adult.

The latest case is a murder trial currently going on in California, as horrible a murder as any you've heard. Three years ago a 14-year-old boy named Brandon McInerney took a gun to school and shot Larry King, a 15-year-old classmate, in the back of the head in a computer lab. King said he was gay, wore women's clothing to school, and had been flirting and making unwanted advances towards McInerney and other boys in the school. Teachers testified at the trial that King was a sweet kid who was confused about his sexuality and, like most adolescents of that age, was trying on different roles. He endeared himself to his teachers but annoyed his classmates and didn't have many friends. King had also been bullied much of his life.

One teacher testified that she went to the assistant principal and asked her to do something about King's behavior because she was afraid the other boys in the school might beat him to death. The principal said King had a constitutional right to wear women's clothing to school and ordered her teachers to teach their classes about the importance of tolerance. At least one of the teachers did this, but it was apparently ineffective. McInerney shot King in class not long afterwards. The prosecutor in the murder trial charged McInerney, now 17, with first degree murder and with a hate crime.

McInerney doesn't dispute that he killed King, but his defense attorney is claiming that he snapped due to his own history of past abuse and his immaturity and inability to handle it when King flirted with him. No one on either side argues that McInerney should not be punished or that anything justifies such a horrible crime. But there are degrees of culpability. The attorney is asking the jury to take McInerney's age and history of abuse into account and find McInerney guilty of manslaughter, which would give him a chance of being released on parole before he turns 40, instead of first degree murder, which would mean he'd be in prison for the rest of his life.

Reading about the case, I wondered why this wasn't charged in juvenile court. If an adult had committed the same murder, there is no doubt that it would be premeditated first degree murder, richly deserving of life imprisonment and probably of the death penalty. But it wasn't an adult who committed the offense. It was a boy who had turned 14 just a few weeks before the murder. At one time in this country, a juvenile who committed an offense – even a murder as horrific as this one – would have been charged in juvenile court and there would have been more focus on rehabilitation than on punishment. Juveniles are usually a lot easier to rehabilitate than adults who commit similar crimes.

Common sense and science both tell us that a 14-year-old is different from a 24-year-old. Brain research even shows that the part of the brain that controls judgement and the ability to control one's impulses isn't full developed until the early to mid-twenties. A 14-year-old is not allowed to drink legally, get married, legally have sex, go to war, sign a contract or, in California, to drive a car. Still, the prosecutor has charged McInerney as an adult and has asked the jury to sentence him to life in prison. That just doesn't make any sense to me. But then neither do any of the other cases of juveniles charged as adults for various offenses and the increasingly punitive sentences handed down to them.

Regardless of what happens in this particular case, I think we need to overhaul what has become an increasingly draconian legal system.

Update

This case resulted in a hung jury today, Sept. 1. It seems that the jury was unable to reach an agreement after nearly a week of deliberations and an eight week trial. It will be interesting to hear the interviews with the jury and hear what the sticking point was. My personal hope is that the prosecution will take this as a sign and allow McInerney a plea deal that will give him a lengthy sentence, but not life in prison. I don't think he should ever have been tried as an adult.

 
 

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