When Nathaniel Abraham - a wiry 11-year-old in the gritty town of Pontiac, Mich. - squeezed the trigger of a stolen rifle two years ago, he probably had no idea it would catapult him to the center of one of today's most nettlesome national debates.
Nathaniel's murder trial, which began this week, has jumped high in the headlines because it coincides with a national soul-searching over how to deal with very young, very violent kids.
For one thing, it follows a dramatic, nationwide get-tough-on-kids movement. Forty states have recently altered their laws to let younger children be tried as adults. Yet in this 100th anniversary year of the founding of juvenile courts - which aim to rehabilitate rather than punish wayward youths - there is also a nagging national ambivalence about hard-edged punishments for the very young.
Indeed, Nathaniel's case raises two fundamental questions: At what point, if ever, should society give up on a problem child? And how much is it willing to do to try to rehabilitate that child?
Even cut-and-dried conservatives acknowledge these conundrums. "It's much easier to make judgments about a 16-year-old gang [member]," says Michael Rushford of the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif. "It's more difficult when the child has domestic problems, mental-health problems, and is very young."
It's an issue that hasn't gone away, despite falling juvenile-crime rates.
On Monday, an 11-year-old boy pleaded guilty to raping a young girl in St. Paul, Minn. Two other boys, ages 10 and 13, have also been charged.
Also this week, a federal judge in Chicago reopened the case of a boy who, at age 11, was convicted of murder primarily on the basis of a confession to police. The trouble is that the detective who obtained the confession is the same one who claimed last summer that two Chicago boys, ages 7 and 8, admitted to killing a girl named Ryan Harris. The case grabbed national headlines, but lab tests later proved the boys couldn't have killed her.
Reverberations from that case are still bouncing around the city, county, and state. All are moving to better protect children in the justice system - including videotaping interrogations or requiring lawyers to be present when police question a minor.
But in Michigan, as in much of the US, the attitude is that prosecutors should stay tough on kids.
Much of that public sentiment, observers say, is based on the perception that juvenile-crime rates are high - and still rising, which was true in the late 1980s and early '90s. Newer statistics, however, show that juvenile violent-crime rates have been falling for several years.
But the prevailing perception has led to flagging public faith in the juvenile-justice system's ability to control crime - and more pressure to try kids as adults.
It's in this context - and under a tough 1997 Michigan law - that the prosecutor in the Nathaniel Abraham case charged the boy with first-degree murder.
That may seem excessive to some, given the facts of the case. Nathaniel was 11 at the time of the murder. He was out shooting a rifle in some trees on a dark night and hit a man coming out of a convenience store 100 yards away. He initially confessed to the killing but now says it was an accident. Prosecutors, however, say he bragged about it at school, which hints at an intent to kill.
Nathaniel has been diagnosed as having mental limitations. Before the shooting, his mother tried to get him committed to juvenile detention, but authorities wouldn't take him because his numerous scrapes with the law weren't serious enough.
Yet talk to prosecutors, and they'll tell you they face a tough choice in cases like these. For one thing, in Michigan - as in many states - even if a kid is slapped with the toughest juvenile sentence available, he will get out of jail at age 21.
"Sometimes that's not proportionate to the crime, and sometimes it's not enough protection for society," says Gary Walker, prosecutor in Michigan's Marquette County. Media reports, he adds, don't often include the fact that a prosecutor is getting reams of psychological analysis that says, "This kid is hopeless."
Yet that's where critics take issue. Prosecutors - and society - tend to get impressed by a child's crime, says Herschella Conyers, a law professor at the University of Chicago. "But if we looked a little closer, we might see an opportunity to change the kid's behavior." Indeed, studies show concerted efforts can change troubled kids - especially younger children.
Not child, not adult
As for prosecutors' dilemma about violent juveniles walking free at age 21, Ms. Conyers says the system must adapt. "There's got to be something between going free at 21 and staying in for life."
A few states have "blended sentences," which are essentially lighter juvenile punishments that become harsher adult ones if a child doesn't change for the better.
As for society's get-tough attitude, it ultimately can lead people to write off kids like Nathaniel "as Frankensteins," says Carl Taylor, a criminologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. To the degree that Nathaniel symbolizes American troubled children - urban, suburban, and rural - says Taylor, people must remember that "Nathaniel Abraham is your child. He's our child. He's our native son."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society