A 15-year-old male is under lock and key in a Dallas juvenile detention center charged with the rapes of five women and the murder of one, awaiting a court hearing at which a judge may do what no one else has been able in 15 years — turn the kid into a responsible adult.
This would be the very narrowest definition of responsibility. He would not be responsible for becoming a decent human being or a productive member of society. If a judge certifies the 15-year-old defendant as an adult, he will be responsible only for the most heinous of his acts, which we hope are the rapes and the murder.
By declaring him an adult, the judge will relieve society of its own responsibilities to him as a juvenile. If he were still a child, then society would be obligated to make an allowance for the growth and redemption even the worst child may still accomplish in life, at least theoretically. That recognition would obligate society to try to lead the defendant toward rehabilitation, whether he chose to follow or not.
By certifying him as an adult, the judge would take society off the hook. As an adult, the 15-year-old can be sentenced to prison for most of his adult life. There, he will receive scant help toward rehabilitation and learn most of his life lessons instead from fellow prisoners. In practical terms, sending him to prison is the equivalent of tossing him into a human landfill.
At least one thoughtful voice in the community is saying that’s exactly what he deserves. Sharon Grigsby, metro columnist for The Dallas Morning News, ushered in the Christmas holiday last week with a column strongly suggesting that the judge who must rule on this issue should opt for adult certification. Naming one of the victims, Grigsby wrote:
“While the hope is that juvenile offenders will wise up and straighten out, this case of a slaying and serial rapes doesn’t exude the characteristics of redemption and rehabilitation. We owe it to Maria Ezquerro’s memory to get this right.”
Grigsby has been responsible for a lot of the Morning News’ exceptional coverage in the last year of rape culture and cover-ups at Baylor University. Her words on this will count. Judges are not only human, they’re political, and here, where judges must run for office, any judge will worry about bad headlines ahead for appearing to show mercy in this case.
But the legal issues in adult certification are not exactly about mercy. The questions are based more on what we know about development and also on whether we consider rehabilitation as a victory or a defeat for the rule of law. If the purpose of the law is provide victims with vengeance, then a juvenile criminal who avoids adult prison and also reforms himself to lead a decent life is a kind of double defeat.
Grigsby isn’t wrong to suggest adult certification could conceivably be the right way to go. There’s a reason it’s in the law. In many societies and most of history, a 15-year-old has been considered an adult, certainly old enough to know right from wrong and old enough to display a penchant for evil. If this person is guilty of what he’s accused of doing, using a gun to gain entry, raping five women and killing a woman, his rehabilitation is not easy to imagine.
But that’s not the reason Grigsby cites in calling for him to be tried as an adult. Repeatedly in her piece she suggests that the accused, who has not been named publicly, should receive harsher handling because that is what his victims deserve.
That idea — that punishment is a kind of compensation paid to victims — has been in the news in Dallas lately in association with another awful story, the Botham Jean/Amber Guyger case, in which Guyger, then a Dallas police officer, shot and killed Jean, an entirely innocent person who was at home in his own apartment.
In that case public demonstrations have called for “justice for Botham Jean,” which I know is a kind of figure of speech. Especially because that case is being viewed as racial, the historical context is one in which a racist justice system has not valued black lives equally with white lives. A call for justice for Botham Jean, therefore, can be taken as a call for equal justice for all.
Or not. Jean’s parents have been on television and quoted in print on numerous occasions saying they are praying for justice for their son. The hard but important truth here is that justice is not for their son. The purpose of justice is not to serve Jean or his parents but to serve the law.
How can those be different things? The Jean case is a great example of how. In fact, let’s unpack that right now.
Guyger, the police officer, says she went to Jean’s apartment by mistake, thinking it was her own on another floor in the same building, found the door ajar and wound up shooting Jean because she thought he was an intruder in her apartment. The common thinking is that her lawyers will argue “mistake of fact,” a defense against murder in Texas law.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that the district attorney may try to persuade the judge in Guyger’s case to bar her lawyers from using mistake of fact as a defense. I am told that mistake of fact doesn’t cover every single mistake, and it may well not cover mistaking where you are. The DA may argue that a person is always responsible for knowing where she is before firing a gun at someone.
Just gotta figure it out, or just don’t shoot.
But if that’s the DA’s argument and if a judge agrees and bars that defense, where would that leave us in terms of justice and the proper reach of the law? Maybe it’s not a mistake of fact under the law, but no evidence has appeared to indicate that this shooting was anything but a horrible mistake.
There has been no evidence that Guyger and Jean had ever met, that there was any backstory whatsoever between them. The attempt to make this a racial justice case is a failure out of the gate, before the trial even begins.
It was awful. It should not have happened. A judge or a jury may well decide that Guyger has a price to pay. But what price? Should Guyger be heaved on the human ash heap because she is hated? Why is she hated? How is it just for you or me to hate her?
I’m not asking why Jean’s parents might hate her. I am a parent. Don’t ask me to be just if someone ever does that to my only child. You’d better lock me up for a while, in fact. But that’s why justice would not be for me to decide.
Justice, if it is not seeking vengeance, should see the Guyger case as a prime occasion for a plea bargain of some kind. If the murder charge isn’t totally obviated by the mistake of fact defense, if it stands in any degree, then the charge itself and a verdict of guilt would demand a price. But her life on the ash heap? For a mistake? How can that be just?
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The quality and tenor of the legal system are distorted and debased when we forget why we’re doing it. Much as our hearts may fly to the parents of Botham Jean, the parents do not own the fate of Amber Guyger. Hate to say it, but they really are the last people to whom her fate should be handed.
The case of this horrible, horrible kid accused of rape and murder is completely unlike the Guyger case, except in this one regard: In both cases, much of the public dialogue so far has been about what can only honestly be called vengeance.
That kid should be tried as an adult if a judge thinks he’s probably guilty and the chances for rehabilitation are nil. But the kid should not be tried as an adult because we think that doing so will provide satisfaction to the victims and their families. And nobody wishes more than I do that we could somehow provide them with satisfaction. Just not as vengeance.
By the same token, painting Guyger as a demon isn’t going to accomplish one drop of justice if she’s really just someone who made a terrible mistake. The way to make Jean’s life count is to make this a less lawless, gun-violent, chaotic society. Vengeance won’t get us there. Vengeance just digs us deeper into the hole.