Does committing a murder make a 13-year-old an adult? In US courts it does…
Some days ago, two 13-year-old boys have been charged with first degree murder in Wisconsin (USA), as reported by the Daily News (New York). Allegedly, they went to one of the boy’s great-grandmother’s home, killed her using a hatchet and hammer, then stole her jewellery and her car – and went for a pizza afterwards.
After giving horrid details of the killing, the Daily News concludes its report with stating that the boys’ defence attorney tries to have the case moved to juvenile court. The reason why these 13-year-olds are not automatically charged as juveniles but stand trial in an adult court is that the USA allows prosecutors to try minors as adults when they commit certain violent felonies. In several states, children as young as 7 can be – and are – tried as adults for some years now. They can be convicted to adult sanctions, including long prison terms, mandatory sentences, and placement in adult prisons. (Since 2005, however, under 18-year-olds can’t be convicted to death sentence any more.)
Unsurprisingly, readers’ comments on the Daily News report aren’t particularly subtle. Still, some of them reflect one of the main arguments in favour of trying minors as adults in such cases – like this comment: “13-year-olds know right from wrong. These kids are just pure evil.” It is argued that today minors are well informed by the media and their environment and therefore can understand the implications of violence. Moreover, the fact that these children or juveniles know how to plan such a crime (by taking a hatchet and a hammer with them, in the Daily News case) allegedly proves that they fully understand the consequences and implications of their doing.
However, the very thought behind applying a separate law to children and juveniles is the idea that they lack the intellectual or moral capacity to understand the consequences of their actions and hence, to take legal responsibility for them. A thought that seems to be backed up by research.
Of course, our legal systems depend on the possibility to hold perpetrators responsible for their actions. And there is also the idea of sentencing to act as deterrent to others who might consider committing crimes. Both goals might be particularly important for severe crimes. However, if we want to adhere to having a separate law for children and juveniles then for adults, based on what argument can felonies constitute an exception from that rule? Said cynically: How of all things can committing a murder make a child more mature in the eyes of the law?