Friday, March 7, 2014

Bending the law to satisfy the need for revenge

I would hope that we could all agree that the brain of a 13-year-old functions differently than the brain of a 28-year-old. I would hope that we could all agree that a 28-year-old has a better grasp on the consequences of actions than a 13-year-old has.

Fifteen years ago Robbie Middleton, who was eight years old, was tied to a tree, doused with gasoline and set on fire. He survived, horribly disfigured, but died in 2011 of cancer that a medical examiner said was caused by his burns. The case was refiled as a homicide.

Donald Collins, who was 13 at the time of the incident, was charged at the time but the case was later dismissed due to a lack of evidence. Shortly before his death, Robbie Middleton recorded a statement in which he claimed Mr. Collins sexually assaulted him a couple of weeks prior to the attack.

Prosecutors in Montgomery County moved to try Mr. Collins as an adult. The law at the time of the attack said that a defendant had to be at least 14 to be tried as an adult (which is in itself absurd). This week State District Judge Kathleen Hamilton ruled that Mr. Collins would be tried as an adult.

Of course we all know what the real argument was about. Forget about the law at the time regarding trying juveniles as adults. The problem was that if Mr. Collins were tried as a juvenile there would be little the court to do in the realm of punishment. The only way for the state to get its pound of flesh was to try Mr. Collins as an adult. So, despite the law, that's what happened.

The juvenile courts were set up with the understanding that kids are fundamentally different than adults and that we should be careful about the sanctions imposed on young people for their transgressions.The idea was to take the child away from the situation that got him into trouble and to rehabilitate him so that he didn't head back down that path as an adult.

Now let's just assume for a second that Mr. Collins is guilty of murder. The crime was heinous. The consequences for Robbie Middleton and his family were profound. But the fact remains that Mr. Collins was a teenager at the time of the attack. His brain wasn't fully developed. He didn't have a firm grasp on the consequences of his actions. Just think of yourself at 13 - did you do things back then that you wouldn't imagine doing today?

Trying Mr. Collins as a juvenile wouldn't satisfy the public's thirst for revenge. But that isn't the purpose of the criminal (in)justice system. At least it shouldn't be.

He may be an adult now, but he wasn't at the time of the attack. Trying him as a juvenile likely wouldn't lead to a very satisfying result, but it would lead to the right result. Sometimes the outcome can be right - even if we don't like it.

And sometimes we can jump through hoops to justify doing the wrong thing. That's just what Judge Hamilton did this week.


Gideon said...

Does anyone have a copy of the ruling? The article you linked to also states her ruling as fact, but doesn't explain it at all. I want to see her reasoning.

Lee said...

If trying him as an adult as a matter of fact by law, how is this judge rationalizing it? It sounds like a good appeal to me?

And, you are correct. Juveniles should be handles as juveniles and adults treated as adults. Can you show me one case where an adult has been tried as a juvenile? But how is it ok to try juveniles as adults?