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She the People
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Posted at 06:15 PM ET, 03/21/2012

Is a life sentence too severe when children kill?

The recidivism outlook is not good for the former 13-year-old killer.  With his younger buddy, they dressed in camouflage and set off the school fire alarm in 1998, drawing his middle school classmates onto the play yard. From a stand of trees that ran behind the adjacent elementary school, the stocky boy and his skinny 11-year-old friend opened fire and killed four little girls and a young woman teacher.  Ten other children were also shot.

The details of the shooting 13 years ago this week in the small Arkansas town were tragic and the story made international headlines.  (Eleven months later, in April 1999, an even more notorious and possibly more gruesome school shooting would occur in Columbine, Colo.)

Both Arkansas boys were immediately caught and taken to the local courthouse jail, where their confessions spilled out quickly and mercifully. The 11-year-old suspect was crying.

Only hours after the shots were fired, I was at a Jonesboro, Ark., motel, a mile or so from the scene of the crime, with a team of ABC News reporters who had flown in from D.C., New York and Los Angeles. By sunset, the small town had swelled with tabloid and hard news reporters from all over the world as a scrum of radio trucks gathered in a high cornfield.

The following day, I persuaded the 13-year-old shooter's mom to go on camera for “20/20” so her neighbors, whose children were massacred, would know how devastated her family was. 

As compelling as the young mother’s on-air interview was, the video I shot paled beside Christmas home movies we aired on “Primetime Live” of the younger sniper shooting a rifle that another producer  talked the child’s grandfather into sharing.

The story stands as the most surreal news-gathering experience in my short career as a television producer – including reporting on my own cancer.  The boys’ families were understandably as shocked as everyone else in town at the cold-bloodedness of the attack. The guilty adolescents were quickly convicted, and each served the maximum sentence at the time for juvenile criminals in their state — a sentence which was bumped from their 18th birthday to their 21st especially for them.  The 13- and 11-year-old were released in 2005 and 2007, respectively. The first one out got an apartment with another boy released from the correctional facility, who had killed his father with a crossbow at 15.

The Jonesboro school shooting case was so shocking, and the penance so proportionately short, that the state — and many other jurisdictions also seeing horrific crimes by minors — raised the sentencing cap to life imprisonment without parole for juvenile offenders who commit capital crimes.

I’m reminded of those two deadly little boys now because on Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments over life sentences for juvenile homicide cases. No longer is the question whether the punishment is too lenient, but whether a lifetime of prison for a child, even a murderer, is too draconian.  A more recent Arkansas homicide case involving a 14-year-old who was along on a robbery in which a store clerk was killed, and one from Alabama in which a man was beaten to death by another 14 year-old, are testing the highest court on appropriate disciplinary measures for children who commit unthinkable crimes.

Although there was a time in between when execution was still permitted, the court weighed in a few years back that kids too young to fully understand the impact of their actions couldn’t be put to death for them.

I lost track of the Jonesboro middle school boys after they disappeared into the juvenile justice system but, thanks to Wikipedia, I was able to catch up on what happened to them. The older of the two — whose mother I interviewed — is back in prison on subsequent state and federal drug, theft and firearms charges. He will, most likely, be a more or less permanent resident of the correctional system.

However, the 11-year-old child, whose family shot Christmas home movies during his brief childhood, changed his name when he got a chance to reform and evidently went as straight as a beam of light.  He surfaced accidently, and law-abidingly, about a year after he was released when he registered for a concealed firearm permit (it was denied).  His old fingerprints matched his new identity.  When last heard from, he was reportedly taking business classes at community college and had apparently reclaimed his life. 

I wish him well. 

By  |  06:15 PM ET, 03/21/2012

Tags:  juvenile sentencing, minors, capital crimes

 
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