When I saw the CBS "60 Minutes" interview of 13-year-old Nathaniel Abraham, heard his childish talk about wanting to be either a lawyer or a basketball player, heard his dim answers to Ed Bradley's gentle questioning, all I could think was: They're trying this 4-foot-11, less-than-100-pound kid for murder?
As an adult?
Then I heard prosecutor David Gorcyca explaining what a rotten kid Nathaniel had been two years ago when he used a rifle to kill 18-year-old Ronnie Greene Jr.--a stranger who was standing near the entrance of a convenience store some 200 feet away.
"This was not your normal 11-year-old boy," the prosecutor said, then proceeded to tick off the youngster's record: "Twenty-two police contacts for arsons, assaults, breaking and enterings. Five of those contacts involved a weapon. Two of them involved two school students. One of them involved a bus driver. He beat a 14-year-old over the head with a steel pipe."
And I wondered: What is the right thing to do with this boy?
A Pontiac, Mich., jury convicted him Tuesday of second-degree murder. (He had been charged with murder in the first degree.) But even the authorities seem about as ambivalent as the rest of us. On the one hand, the prosecutors had no compunction about charging an 11-year-old as an adult. "I have 4-year-old twins," Gorcyca told Bradley, "and believe me, they know the difference between right and wrong."
On the other hand, they say, having won a murder conviction against this terrible kid, they will recommend that the judge sentence him to a juvenile detention facility for counseling and rehabilitation. If he responds to treatment, he could be released at age 21.
Is this a cold-blooded and calculating killer who boasted that he would kill someone and then proceeded to do so, whose crimes are so awful that he deserved to be tried as an adult? Then why not sentence him as an adult?
If the authorities believe Nathaniel is a fit subject for counseling and rehabilitation, why didn't they try him as a juvenile? And besides, where on earth was their proffer of counseling and rehab when he was racking up 22 police counts before he turned 12? Where were the counselors when his mother was begging the authorities to do something to help straighten the boy out?
You don't have to be a bleeding heart to believe that the state that insisted on trying Nathaniel as an adult failed him as a child. And you don't have to be a heartless monster to understand that some children are so far gone you can't just waggle your finger in their faces and send them home.
But what is the idea of trying them as adults--as more and more states are doing these days? We're not talking here about 17-year-old gangbangers whose age is just one of those legal "technicalities" people complain about. We're talking about really young children. Michigan is an extreme example of the trend. State law allows prosecutors to get judicial approval to try any juvenile as an adult--no matter how young.
It's one thing to argue that a particular juvenile, because of his mental maturity and clear sense of the wrongness of his acts, ought to be tried as an adult. It's quite another to argue that a child should be transmuted into an adult by the sheer awfulness of his behavior. If an 11-year-old who sets fires or steals cars needs psychological or psychiatric intervention, by what logic does he need less such intervention as his behavior grows worse?
Lawyers will argue over the technicalities. Can an 11-year-old murder defendant be tried by a jury of his peers? How much understanding of right and wrong should be necessary for a defendant to be qualified as an adult? Prosecutor Gorcyca's contention notwithstanding, nothing his 4-year-old twins could do would lead anybody to charge them, even as juveniles.
But what we really need to be thinking about is the question of what to do with children who get horribly off track. There are brutal children, remorseless children, I dare say conscienceless children who are menaces to the society. We need to treat them at the first signs of their incipient awfulness, of course, but after they torture or brutalize or kill, then what?
It's a tough enough question as it is. Trying children as adults merely as a way of ratcheting up the available punishments doesn't make it the least bit easier.