THE ACCUSED rolled her baby-blue eyes and calmly munched her M&Ms, while the lawyers argued over courtroom preliminaries. She was a cool customer in the face of a possible 15 years and $10,000 fine for aggravated battery, but her composure broke when she left the courtroom and faced a crowd of cameramen and journalists. She burst into tears and snuggled up to the man who had come to court with her. She is 6 years old, and her father's arms were a comfortable and familiar place of refuge.
The dangerous defendant in the Gainesville, Fla., courtroom last Friday was Nancy Jo Burch, who must be the youngest person brought before the bar of justice in the United States in modern times. The complaining witness, 7-year-old Shirley Lynn Nickolls, said she'd been struck in the face with a stick by Nancy Jo, and her parents wanted justice. So the power and majesty of the whole state of Florida weighed in to see that the guilty were punished. It is hard to believe that any rational adult--parents, prosecutors, social workers or court officials--ever thought for a single minute that this was a sensible thing to do.
The trouble began in January when the older girl pushed the 6-year-old into a mud puddle. A few days later, with the help of a 13-year-old boy, Nancy Jo struck back and hit Shirley while the boy held the victim's arms. Shirley's parents were justifiably upset, but instead of working things out with Nancy Jo's parents, they called the sheriff. That worthy gentleman, knowing a danger to the community when he saw one, took Nancy Jo and her accomplice into custody and brought them to the police station, where they were booked, fingerprinted and photographed.
If you imagine things couldn't get much worse than that, you are wrong. The parents of this dangerous creature then decided to call the bluff of law enforcement authorities by refusing to submit to juvenile procedures and demanding that Nancy Jo be tried as an adult by a jury of her peers. No one ventured a guess as to how a jury of 6-year-olds could be induced to sit still long enough to reach a verdict. So last week, the whole cast assembled in a Gainesville courtroom, where the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services recommended prosecution, the prosecutor agreed and the judge said he had to go along.
Probably because the national spotlight was focused on this folly over the weekend, the prosecutor has had second thoughts. He now concedes that he's not anxious to prove criminal intent on the part of a 6-year-old and that the public would not be endangered if the charges were dropped. The two girls have apparently resumed their friendship, thereby demonstrating more good sense than the whole crew of adults involved in this ridiculous fiasco