Truth, undue consequence
By James Alan Fox
Monday, May 22, 2006
The response to my last column about the harsh penalties for juvenile murder was more plentiful and passionate than that to my previous dozen combined. I fully expected to trigger some outrage by questioning the justice behind the life sentence without parole given to Kentell Weaver, who was convicted of murdering Germaine Rucker during a gang-involved dispute in August 2003, just after turning 16.
E-mailer Maurice M. charged that I was "totally out of touch" and added that I hadn't done my "homework." To Maurice and several other critics, I pointed out that my advocacy for a 20-year sentence (rather than life) for juvenile homicide was not so crazy, as it was precisely the law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Bill "Let-Them-Break-Rocks" Weld back in 1991.
Maurice insisted that times are different now. But it is he who had not done the homework: The Boston homicide rate in 1991 was actually much higher than it is today.
What surprised me most about the messages is that my supporters outnumbered detractors by a 2-1 margin. Apparently, there are many readers with family or friends who have been crushed by the "let's treat juveniles like adults" runaway train.
I am frequently asked by the law-and-order crowd whether I would change my position were it my child who was murdered. Anticipating that refrain, I confessed that the thirst for vengeance in such a case would indeed be mine, but should not be the justice system's.
Curiously, the question one rarely hears is: How would you feel if it were your child who was charged with murder and faced with an adult life sentence?
A deeply troubling sidebar to the Kentell Weaver saga is the role of his mother Iris. After learning from her son of his participation in an unsolved homicide, she dragged him down to the police station to tell his story, unaware of the devastating consequences. This was Iris Weaver's strategy for getting him a lawyer that she could not afford. And, to this devoutly religious woman, it was just the right thing to do.
Now painfully aware of the automatic life provision, Iris Weaver second-guesses her tactics. Should she have been smarter in protecting her son from that runaway train of juvenile injustice? For her and for her son, was honesty the best policy?
I generally disfavor mandatory sanctions, like the automatic life sentence prescribed by the juvenile murder statute. These laws tend to handcuff courts in their pursuit of fairness and justice.
District attorneys can, of course, undercharge a murder rap to manslaughter and prosecute as a youthful offender, allowing discretion in sentencing. But that shouldn't be necessary just in order to achieve an appropriate outcome when mitigating factors warrant compassion.
I don't expect that the Kentell Weaver case will prompt the Legislature to turn back the clock on prosecuting juveniles in the adult system - certainly not in the current climate. At the very least, however, lawmakers need somehow to lessen the blow when offenders and their parents do the right thing.
Last winter, Police Commissioner Kathy O'Toole and others denounced the "stop snitchin'" culture. O'Toole explicitly encouraged parents to ``step up'' and do the right thing by turning their children over to the police when they are in trouble, suggesting that it would be best for them in the long run.
After her experience, Iris Weaver finds it hard to see the benefit from having turned in her kid. To the contrary, she sees O'Toole's advice as a cruel joke, if not outright hypocritical.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at firstname.lastname@example.org.