In July of 1998, Chicagoans and soon thereafter, people throughout the world, were stunned to learn that the Chicago police had arrested and charged two boys, ages 7 and 8, with the brutal murder and rape of an 11 year old girl named Ryan Harris. According to police, the boys knew details about the crime that only the true perpetrators could have known. Less than a month later, the Chicago police and Cook County State's Attorney's had egg on their faces -- the boys were innocent, DNA had excluded them as the source of semen found on the girll's body. In dropping the charges, the Cook County State's Attorney announced that medical experts tell us that it is highly improbable that 7 and 8 year olds can produce semen. "Duh" -- as my kid's like to say. The two boys were both traumatized from the arrests, the psychological testings, the separation from parents and still suffered post-traumatic stress disorder years later when their civil suits were resolved (the 7 year old, who was so damaged he opted not to go to trial, accepted $2 mil, the 8 year old, in the middle of trial, received $6.2 mil).
Now the tragedy has come full circle with news that the 7 year old, now fifteen, is being charged as an adult with aggravated battery of a firearm in connection with the shooting of two men at a Calumet Park gas station. Did the events connected to the wrongful conviction play any role in the decision of the boy to shoot? It's a legitimate question but this question and many others (e.g., was the boy under the influence of his 18 year old stepbrother who was also arrested?, was he a follower or a leader?, was the crime provoked or premeditated, etc.) will never be answered by a juvenile court judge in Illinois because the case is being automatically transferred to adult court. Nor can an Illinois criminal court judge consider this as mitigation in determining whether to transfer back the case to juvenile court. In Illinois, there are no such reverse waiver provisions. Cases of fifteen year olds charged with such serious crimes begin and end in criminal court where, if convicted, the boy now known by his real name, must face sentences of between 6 and 30 years for each count of aggravated battery.
Last year, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that 16 and 17 year olds are not sufficiently culpable for their crimes to warrant the death penalty. As a class, they are immature, lack judgment and tend to make rash decisions on impulse. They are also less competent as criminal defendants, often unable to understand their constitutional rights or to exercise them competently. Not all adolescents fit this mold. Maturation in these areas differs among individuals. But there is good reason to believe that the 7, now 15 year old, is fits the mold -- he suffered from severe learning disabilities which made him function in school at a lower age than his chronological age. My point is this -- after Roper, 15 and 16 year olds should be presumed to be less culpable than adult and that presumption should mean that their cases should start in juvenile court, rather than adult court. It should be the State's burden to demonstrate based upon the facts of the crime, the individual characteristics of the efendant, and the seriousness of the offense, that the interests of the minor and the public are best served by adult prosecution. The current law, is in the words of my kids, "bass ackwards."