When the police came for Nathaniel Abraham two years ago to charge him with first-degree murder, he was sitting in his sixth-grade classroom, his face painted for Halloween. He was 11, and his feet didn't quite touch the floor when he sat in a defense chair at his arraignment.
Nathaniel is 4 inches taller now, and his mannerisms are less childlike at 13. But he still looks like a child, slouched with a bored, impassive look as if he were in a classroom instead of in a courtroom in Oakland County, facing a potential sentence of life without possibility of parole.
Nathaniel is the youngest child to be charged with murder in Michigan--perhaps the youngest in modern U.S. history to be tried as an adult for first-degree murder. He also has become a symbol in a campaign against a growing tendency in U.S. courts to prosecute and punish juveniles who commit serious crimes as if they were adults.
Amnesty International USA, which put a picture of Nathaniel on the cover of a report critical of the juvenile justice system, says Nathaniel's trial here "makes a mockery of justice and constitutes a violation of international human rights standards for the protection of children."
Nathaniel is accused of firing a stolen .22-caliber rifle out of some trees on a steep hillside and killing a stranger, Ronnie Greene Jr., 18, as he walked out of a store about 200 feet away. He also is being tried on a charge of assault with intent to murder for allegedly firing the same gun at a neighbor and missing shortly before going to the hillside.
Nathaniel contends he was just shooting at the trees and never intended to kill Greene. But prosecutors have portrayed the slightly built youth as a calculating killer who bragged to a girl at his school that he planned to kill someone--then did so.
"Nathaniel Abraham did exactly what he said he was going to do, and Ronnie Greene paid with his life," Assistant Oakland County Prosecutor Lisa Halushka said. She said the case is not about age but is about "accountability for a homicide."
At 11, Nathaniel already was well known to the police, who say they have linked him to at least 24 crimes, including burglaries, a home invasion, two aggravated assaults with metal pipes, an arson case, snatching a woman's purse at gunpoint and using guns to intimidate other elementary school students.
But before this, police had charged him with only a single crime--a break-in.
His defenders say that Nathaniel is a deeply troubled and mentally deficient youth who at the time of the homicide had the reasoning abilities of a 6-year-old and was incapable of forming a premeditated intent to kill.
If convicted, Nathaniel could be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole, to juvenile detention until he becomes an adult, or to a blended sentence in which his record would be reviewed when he turns 21 to determine whether he should be released.
The case has turned the spotlight on Michigan's three-year-old juvenile justice law--one of the toughest in the nation--which allows prosecutors to obtain judicial approval for trying any juvenile as an adult, no matter how young. Before 1996, youths 17 or older had to be tried as adults and juveniles as young as 14 could be tried as adults with a judge's permission.
Forty-six states recently have changed their laws to allow juveniles to be tried as adults at the discretion of a judge; 14 states have mandatory adult prosecution for some offenses, and 15 have a "presumptive" process that begins in juvenile court and has to have the court's approval before transfer of an offender to an adult court. Prosecutors initiate the decision with a "direct file" in 15 states, according to Amnesty USA.
The District of Columbia has a combination of discretionary, presumptive and direct file processes. Virginia allows judges to decide but mandates transfer for some offenses. Maryland uses the discretionary approach.
Some critics of the trial here have contended that the prosecution may be partly motivated by race, even though Greene--like Nathaniel--was black. They maintain that there is a tendency nationally toward leaving white children accused of serious crimes in the juvenile justice system for rehabilitation, while black children often are tried and sentenced as adults.
Amnesty USA reported last year that black children comprise only 15 percent of the population ages 10 to 17, but account for 50 percent of cases transferred by juvenile courts for trial in adult criminal courts.
"We are in a mean period in which there is no doubt race is playing a role in the prosecution of children in the adult system," said Sam Jordan, a program director at Amnesty. "Do we really want children walking into court crying because they haven't seen their mother in two weeks? That's what we're doing to our children."
Because Nathaniel confessed to the shooting of Greene, his supporters have likened him to an 11-year-old Chicago boy who was convicted as a juvenile of a 1993 slaying primarily on the basis of a confession to police. A federal judge reopened the case last month after it was disclosed that the detective who obtained the confession also testified last summer that two boys, ages 7 and 8, had admitted to killing and sexually molesting an 11-year-old girl, Ryan Harris. First-degree murder charges against the two boys were dropped after semen evidence showed it was impossible for them to have committed the crime.
National attention to the Ryan Harris case has prompted juvenile justice advocates to demand more safeguards against coerced confessions of children, including videotaping interrogations and requiring lawyers to be present when police question a minor.
Evidence introduced in Nathaniel's trial has focused in part on whether the youth could have hit a walking target at 200 feet at night with a 30-year-old, .22-caliber rifle that is missing part of its wooden stock and is without a telescopic sight. That caliber rifle is considered among the least accurate at that distance, and some gun experts have said that hitting a moving target without a properly aligned telescopic sight--much less without a gunstock--would be a fluke.
The prosecution's arguments of premeditation also suffered a setback Tuesday when a 14-year-old girl testified that Nathaniel was just "playing" when he told her he was going to shoot someone the day before Greene was killed. The witness appeared to have difficulty recalling details of her conversations with him, although when shown a copy of her testimony during Nathaniel's preliminary examination, she admitted he had told her he had fired the fatal shot.
But Nathaniel's lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, who represented former pathologist Jack Kevorkian in assisted-suicide trials and last year ran unsuccessfully in the Michigan governor's race, contends that while Greene's death was accidental--evidence will show the bullet ricocheted off a tree branch, he says--the larger issue is one of applying the principle of diminished capacity to form the intent to commit a crime to an 11-year-old.
Arguing unsuccessfully Tuesday for a directed acquittal as the prosecution completed its case, Fieger said that by definition any 11-year-old has diminished capacity because the benchmark in applying the term is adulthood.
Fieger said Michigan's law would allow a 3-year-old to be tried for murder. "Then where do we go? Is there a diminished capacity defense there. . . . And diminished from what?" Fieger asked the judge.
Rejecting Fieger's motion for a bench verdict, Judge Eugene Moore said that Michigan has enacted laws that are different from other states'.
"It's not up to this court to second-guess the legislature," the judge said.
LAWS BY JURISDICTION
Forty-six states have recently changed their laws to allow juveniles to be tried as adults, and many states have other rules for transferring juvenile cases into adult courts. Here are some provisions that states follow.
1. Judge decides whether to transfer juvenile to adult court.
2. Mandatory transfer to adult court for some offenses.
3. Rebuttable presumption that transfer will be appropriate.
4. Prosecutor decides in which court the juvenile will be tried.
SOURCE: Amnesty USA