In a case that fueled a national debate over juvenile justice, a jury in Pontiac, Mich., today found Nathaniel Abraham, one of the country's youngest murder defendants, guilty of second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of a stranger two years ago, when Nathaniel was 11 years old.
After deliberating more than four days, jurors voted not to convict Nathaniel, who is now 13, of first-degree murder, which could have resulted in a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Conviction on the lesser charge means he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison with parole a possibility. Or he could be sentenced as a juvenile and incarcerated until 21, at which time he could either be released or given a judicial review for possible additional punishment.
Nathaniel was wearing a Halloween costume when he was arrested for the Oct. 29, 1997, slaying of Ronnie Greene Jr., 18. He was so small his feet didn't touch the floor when he sat in a defense chair at his first court appearance. Today, Nathaniel showed no visible emotion when the verdict was read.
However, one of his attorneys, Daniel Bagdade, who had his hand on the boy's shoulder, said Nathaniel trembled and cried, repeatedly asking what had happened to him.
Promising an appeal, Nathaniel's lead defense attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, called the verdict "repugnant" and said it was "born out of anger." He told reporters, "I think the rest of the world will scorn us and hold us in contempt."
Prosecutor Lisa Halushka called it a "sad victory for everyone involved" but said that at least the victim's family had received justice. At the same time, she said, the verdict "recognizes the responsibility of Nathaniel Abraham" while providing him the opportunity for help.
Oakland County Judge Eugene A. Moore ordered a psychiatric examination of the youth and set sentencing for Dec. 14. Prosecutors said they will recommend that he be sent to a juvenile detention facility where he can receive counseling and rehabilitation.
"Hopefully, with the help of the services that the court is able to provide for him, he will be rehabilitated and able to be released at age 21," Halushka said.
Nathaniel was the youngest child to be charged with murder in Michigan and the first to be tried under the state's 3-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.
He is believed to be the youngest defendant anywhere in the United States in modern times to be tried as an adult for first-degree murder. As such, he became a symbol in a campaign against what some juvenile justice advocates view as a growing tendency in U.S. courts to prosecute and punish children who commit serious crimes as if they were adults.
Amnesty International USA put a picture of Nathaniel on the cover of a report critical of the juvenile justice system, saying that his trial violated international human rights standards for the protection of children.
Curt Goering, Amnesty USA's senior deputy executive director, said the verdict was "not the worst it could have been" and that Halushka's call for rehabilitation "at least recognizes the special needs such children have."
Evidence introduced in Nathaniel's trial focused in part on whether an 11-year-old could have aimed, fired and hit a walking target more than 200 feet away at night with a 30-year-old, .22-caliber rifle without a telescopic sight and missing most of its wooden stock. Fieger contended that Nathaniel was shooting at trees on a wooded hillside when a bullet ricocheted, striking Greene in the head as he emerged from a convenience store.
Fieger, a high-profile defense lawyer who represented former pathologist Jack Kevorkian in assisted-suicide trials and last year ran unsuccessfully in the Michigan governor's race, also presented testimony by psychologists that Nathaniel is mildly retarded, has the reasoning abilities of a 6-year-old and was incapable of forming a premeditated intent to kill.
A second-degree murder conviction required a conclusion either that Nathaniel intended to kill or cause great bodily harm or that he created a high risk of death and bodily harm.
Fieger contended that because of his age, Nathaniel had diminished capacity and could not have formed a premeditated intent to kill. Halushka countered that the case was not about age but was about "accountability for homicide" and that Nathaniel was a calculating killer who had bragged at his school that he planned to kill someone and then did exactly that.
CAPTION: JUVENILES IN ADULT COURT (This chart was not available)
CAPTION: Above, Nathaniel Abraham, 13, was found guilty of second-degree murder in the 1997 shooting of Ronnie Greene Jr., 18. At left, Gloria Abraham, Nathaniel's mother, is comforted by a friend as she leaves the courthouse in Pontiac, Mich., after the verdict was announced.