Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Trying Teen as Adult

The Los Angeles Times reports on the case of an Oxnard, CA boy who shot and killed a 15-year old gay classmate who had allegedly expressed a romantic interest in him.

Brandon McInerny, age 14 at the time of the killing, is charged with first degree murder with a gun enhancement charge and a hate crime allegation. He is being tried as an adult, and faces a maximum penalty of 53 years to life in prison. The defense had rejected an earlier plea offer from the prosecution of a reduced charge that carried a sentence of 25 years to life.

While everyone would readily agree that killing this classmate, for any reason whatsoever, was a horrible crime, is justice going to be served by sending this child to prison for 53 years? By trying him as an adult, the state of California is saying it has absolutely no reason to try to help this boy understand what he did and to turn him into a responsible adult who can rejoin society. The decision to try him as an adult smells of politics and pandering to interest groups (just like the hate crime charge). I don't deny that the alleged romantic overture had sparked intense agitation for McInerny, and I'm not a legal expert, but couldn't his reaction be as much a product of an immature mind?

If he'd been 18 and still done this, I would of course call this a hate crime, because by that time -- at least in the opinion of the state -- he should know better than to react that way. But children sometimes act in ways that defy all logic because their brains do not have the capacity to discern that their behavior is wrong.

Yes, I know that any adolescent child should know that killing is wrong, but that doesn't answer the fact that there might perhaps be some adolescent children who don't know that killing is wrong, especially after one's entire sexual identity at that tender age is being questioned. I've had gay men hit on me before, and I have politely and calmly told them I'm not attracted to men. Should they press the matter in an obnoxious way, however, I could see myself getting a little firmer and telling them to piss off.

But I can't imagine myself at 14, when although I was first discovering sexuality was completely sure I was attracted to girls, not flying off the handle and freaking out that some guy told me he liked me in a sexual or romantic way. I don't think I could have dealt with the looks I would have gotten by classmates who would be questioning (or even asserting) that now I was gay (the words would have been much harsher too). The embarrassment, confusion, and shame that I would likely have experienced (not to mention the physical violence I would have encountered by some of the boys I knew back then) would have completely messed me up. I don't think I would have gone for a gun, but there would have been a lot of very crazy thoughts going through my mind.

So while the choice McInerny made is clearly wrong, I can understand what his state of mind might have been. And for that reason, I think that trying him as an adult and placing him in an adult facility after he serves time in a juvenile facility is the wrong thing to do. I think a case can probably be made for involuntary manslaughter and a much lesser sentence (too bad that the defense appears to be too obtuse to get that).

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