Friday, July 20, 2012


I approached both of the recent articles - Rachel Aviv's in the New Yorker, and Scott Anderson's in this week's NYT Magazine - profiling men who had, as 14-year-old boys, killed members of their immediate families, only to be tried as adults, with the same thought going into it. The one you're expected to have, namely that it is unfair to hold an adult responsible for a crime committed before the age of reason, whether that's 18 or not.

Yet the actual information provided by both pieces suggested something quite different from the reconsideration both authors advocate for. Not so much that such individuals [said "men" before, fixed] should be tried as adults, as that the arguments against doing so don't add up.

I'll focus on Anderson piece, which is fresher in my mind, and which doesn't advocate for a legal change that's since taken place. Anderson profiles a man whose reasons for killing his parents were that his father was distant and the silent type, not effusive with praise, while his mother nagged him too much. Not an abusive or violent home. The scrappier end of the white middle class. 

It's understandable that the boy's grievances ring true to many, precisely because they are the everyday grievances of so many adolescents. Their banality is what ought to clue us into the likelihood that something was incredibly off - depraved? ill? evil? sociopathic? as a non-expert, I'm going with "off" - about this particular boy, to react to having run-of-the-mill flawed parents by murdering them. He felt he wasn't appreciated for who he was? With the exception of the small subset of adolescent boys whose parents spend maybe too much time telling them they're god's gift to humanity, this is adolescence.

What's striking isn't just the crime, given the facts, but also that upon reflection, this is what the prisoner decided explains his crime. He doesn't seem to understand the sheer number of people who feel misunderstood and under-appreciated at 13, 14, and don't kill anybody, even in households with guns lying around. (Guns not lying around would be a plus, but is a separate, if related, issue.) In the case Aviv profiles, the murderer was upset that he'd been dumped by text message. It might be possible to point to what had made an off person most upset that day, but normal woes themselves don't explain anything.

Anderson provides further background information, some relevant, some not. The kid's mother had had an unfortunate childhood, which may have played a role. Appalachian migrants to the Midwest evidently stick to their own kind, and this particular family didn't have many friends. Are we to believe that the introverted and provincial are more likely to be shot to death by their offspring? That his parents' failure to entertain a cosmopolitan crowd was as much a factor in his murdering them as was his own off-ness?

Both of these articles are the kind of real journalism someone who's blog-crastinating can't sneeze at, and the authors are clearly better-informed on this issue than I'll ever be. But what's missing from both of these accounts is, I suppose, the counterargument. Some explanation of why anyone might support these laws other than, Americans are barbaric, blood-thirsty outliers in the Western world. Some acknowledgement that murder is a really big deal. That this isn't, bleeding-heart-wise, like humanizing those who fall into gangs and drug-dealing in environments where other options are few.

The fact that it's so easy to sympathize with being 14 and miffed at one's relatives, 14 and impulsive, is precisely why we shouldn't readily understand how - even at a young and careless age - someone would think murder was the answer. That's not even within the realm of what was once called juvenile delinquency. (Meanwhile, the latest research is telling us that the "child's" brain only finishes developing at 25, meaning that we should also be having this conversation about criminals who, at the time of the crime, are probably long since out of school and their parents' homes.)

Goes without saying, but I'm no authority on what should be done with/for juvenile murderers, which sentences are appropriate, whether the Supreme Court's rulings thus far have done enough. Nor, for that matter, do I have any particular opinion on exactly which sentencing makes sense for adults convicted of murder. And, as I said, I don't know how to classify the quality that leads certain people to snap, how anyone, expert or not, is able to say which possibly-drug-addled off person is or is not "insane" - even within the world of constructs and legal definitions, this is a tough one to wrap one's head around. I just found the journalistic unsettling in both cases, and, like I said, in conflict with the very story being told.


Flavia said...

What I found compelling about the Aviv article (which I assigned to my comp class this spring, so I remember it pretty well--I've only just read the first few paragraphs of the other one) is the science about brain development and adolescent impulsiveness, lack understanding of permanence, etc.

But I agree that it doesn't exactly make the most rhetorically persuasive case for the kid's lack of being. . . off, as you say. He's not the poster-child the movement against the adult sentences particularly wants (which would be a kid who's been viciously abused by a parent and who eventually lashes out and kills his abuser, or someone like that).

But in any case, I like the fact that the Aviv essay isn't exactly a work of advocacy, or isn't only that--that there remains a real mystery at its heart: why? Well, we don't always know why, including about things we did ourselves.

caryatis said...

The question that springs to mind for me is: why try to get people to sympathize with murderers? If this article leads me to think about how, perhaps, I felt misunderstood as a teenager and there but for the grace of God go I, what is the value of that?

I suppose, if there is a purpose to this sort of journalism and it's not just capitalizing on a gruesome topic that attracts pageviews, the purpose would be to lead us to support prison reform efforts and a lenient approach to crime. Whereas if we focused on your reasonable suspicion that there's something deeply _different_ about a lot of violent criminals, we might be inclined to not care what happens to them.

Also, I hear this tidbit about how the brain "finishes" developing at 25 everywhere, but I'm pretty sure it is bullshit. We don't know enough about the brain to know what it would even mean to say it was "finished". Besides, the brain actually changes throughout life, and as you move from adolescence to middle life, different parts of the brain change in different ways, and not all the change is for the better.

This sort of factoid, only tangentially related to actual neurological research, is being popularized in order to make it easier to deprive 18-to-25-year-olds of their rights and privileges. For instance, in the NPR article you linked, some argue that young adults should be kept in foster care until 25 because neuroscience. (Because foster care is so good for young people!) The same argument was used a while back to justify depriving 18-to-21-year-olds of the ability to get credit cards without a parent cosigner. So, yeah, it drives me crazy.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Both articles are compelling, well-researched, etc. I don't think that prevents them from having a particular slant.

In terms of youth, brain development, impulsiveness... I do think the key counterargument remains that exceedingly few 14-year-olds kill their parents. Being reckless at 14 is doing things like deciding to start smoking, or hanging out too late in the wrong parks. It isn't killing your relatives. The question certainly is "why," but the same is true when the murderer is 40.

Then, of course, there's the common-sense argument against this new science of brain development, namely that if we're now saying that 25 is the cutoff... let's just say I'm intrigued to know that my husband, who I met in grad school, was my childhood sweetheart, and also that I reached the post-MA part of my grad program while still quasi-adolescent.

One hears this in terms of alcohol - that any drinks consumed prior to your late 20s (!) will impair you forever. Meanwhile, if one thinks of all the intelligent people one knows (all the more so if they're not from the U.S., but even then), there's the reality of how many did indeed have a drink prior to 21, prior to college, even, or, rather, how few didn't do so. It doesn't add up. (There are good reasons to encourage high school students not to drink, namely cars, but that's another issue.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"The question that springs to mind for me is: why try to get people to sympathize with murderers?"

Indeed. But also, almost, why bother? Handed all the details, the vast majority of us are going to say, hmm, a nagging mother and a distant father are not grounds for self-defense. Whatever rationale there might be for different sentencing for 14-year-olds than 34-year-olds, that wasn't it.

And glad I'm not alone in having my doubts re: this childhood-till-25 development. I mean, think of how much of human accomplishment can now be attributed to "children"! It makes sense that now would be the time that such a factoid as you say takes off - extended adolescence and all that. But if one can stay on one's parents' health insurance till 26, this is not because one biologically is a child till 26, but because our current system isn't giving many young adults grown-up-type job opportunities.

caryatis said...


Agreed. So then the rationale for lenient sentencing for juveniles would be the rehabilitative one: under-18-year-olds for whatever reason have personalities and habits that are more plastic than those of older, so they have more chance of learning to control their psychotic urges. Not sure if there is any data to support this, but it sounds plausible. And that greater chance of being rehabilitated should lead us to refrain from executing them or giving them life without parole.

(Personally, I don't find that argument very convincing: given that any criminal has a non-zero chance of becoming an upstanding citizen, we should either refrain from giving anyone death or life without parole or else remember that most criminals do reoffend and prisons suck at rehabilitation and prioritize public safety over the criminals.)

PG said...

To clarify, the Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama was that juvenile homicide offenders (which can include people who committed "felony murder," i.e. they participated in a felony during which someone else caused an innocent person's death) can't be sentenced to life without possibility of parole. They still can be tried, sentenced and punished as adults -- meaning they'll have no access to the juvenile justice system -- and there is no entitlement to parole if the offender isn't a good candidate to be released into society.

The NYT writer is quite aware that the subject of his profile is not appealing: "But in this controversy, Greg Ousley is an unlikely representative for sentencing reform."

One of the Miller plaintiffs was in for felony murder, which has long been controversial (it's basically used to try to deter people from riding along on crimes where a co-criminal is armed or prone to violence), but seems especially problematic for a juvenile. I recently dealt with a case where a 13-year-old without many friends got invited to a "party." When she got there, she realized her hosts had broken into someone else's home while the owners were absent. Unsure of what to do and not wanting to seem uncool, she sat on the couch and watched the boys destroy and steal stuff in the house, until the police came. She was charged with accomplice liability (which made her subject to the same punishment as the primary perpetrators). If the boys had done something worse -- say, set the house on fire to distract the police while they ran away, causing the death of a police officer -- she'd be liable for that too.

I do think this is the kind of situation that is drastically more likely to happen with an adolescent than with an adult. (It also happens more with the mentally retarded, who are frequently exploited to assist in crimes.) To a 13-year-old, the consequence of being bullied at school if she is lame about a party is much more clear and immediate than either criminal penalties or the impact on the victim. I don't think it unduly infantilizes young people to understand why what we would expect of a 24-year-old in the same situation -- leave and call the police -- was not what the 13-year-old did.

But weighted against this was a concern so perverse that only an adolescent mind might come up with it: already having a reputation among his friends as a liar, he was sure that if he didn’t do this now, no one would ever believe him about anything again.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Thanks for the clarification. I do see how crimes with a big peer-pressure element - like being an accomplice - are ones where a 13-year-old perhaps ought to be tried differently than a 33-year-old.

That said, this was a very different sort of crime. It seems like a stretch (albeit a stretch likely to be made by the guy's lawyers, or, in this case, a journalist sympathetic to him perhaps because he (the murderer) is so unsympathetic to others) to say that the fear of not following through with a plan he told his friends about amounts to peer pressure, or sitting by flummoxed as more powerful acquaintances committed some crime. This wasn't some prank that got out of hand.

I mean, he came up with this plan, and meant it. I'm pretty sure that when I was 14, if a classmate had told me he wanted to kill his parents, I'd have assumed he was angry at his parents, not that he was planning a double murder. If the kid went on about it, I might have thought the kid creepy, but it's so beyond comprehension that someone would actually do such a thing that I think I'd have had trouble believing it.

The sincerity of the plan, in other words, was coming from him, not his friends. Unless I missed it, there were not a gaggle of friends egging him on. Whatever twisted logic made him think his friends would be let down if he didn't follow through and murder his parents was maybe 99.99% nuttiness, 0.01% age-specific nuttiness. Anderson framed it otherwise, but that's not how I'd interpret it.

PG said...

I don't think he was exactly peer pressured, but that being seen as a liar was a more immediate, comprehensible outcome to him than concepts like "you will never see your parents again" or (what policymakers care about) "you will spend the rest of your life in prison if you do this and get caught."

The concern about what other people thought -- not just in an instrumental sense, but because he cared about their opinions -- was one of the things that made him seem "off" but not sociopathic. I have to say the kid who shot his grandfather seemed both more sympathetic and yet more dangerous: he seems to have acted in a kind of dissociated state, with no effort to get away with his crime, but that also makes me nervous that he could be in that condition again.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"Off but not sociopathic" seems plausible. If you care what others think, but your notion of what others might want is incredibly delusional and basically a reflection of what you want, then indeed, your problem is less narcissism/indifference to others than... off-ness. Anything more specific, I couldn't say. But again, I'm not sure how much being 14 would have entered into that.

PG said...

I think delusions about what/how much others think about you are a typical part of being 14 that usually wears off with time. The fact that states are constitutionally barred from executing juvenile murderers does allow us to see something of how they grow up. If the mental factors that went into the crime at 14 no longer seem to be present at 30, it's reasonable to think that those maybe weren't permanent aspects of the killer's character.

I see your point about how the very normalness of the adolescent's problems only makes their crimes more freakish. While few of us have been in the situation of being poor in a gang-infested neighborhood and thus can't say with certainty how we'd react to the demand that we kill someone as part of an initiation ritual that will give us protection from being a victim in the future, quite a lot of us have experienced disappointment in our parents without killing them or anyone else. I'm just not sure that what logically follows from that is "And therefore the juvenile who does kill ought to be treated like an adult who committed the same act."

And I understand why caryatis is skeptical of vaguely general claims about how the brain "finishes" development at 25, but there are certain parts of the brain that are extremely important to impulse control and the ability to grasp consequences, which are very different in an adolescent than in that same person as an adult. Since the criminal law in particular needs bright line rules, I don't think it makes sense to get into individual assessments of people on either side of the 18-year-old line.

But I also don't think a return to the American tradition of juvenile justice somewhat distinct from adult justice -- particularly for criminals who aren't likely to reoffend -- is the first step on a slippery slope to keeping 25 year olds in foster homes.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


First, I'm not aware of the place where I said that 14-year-olds should be tried/sentenced as adults. My point was that these articles, whose ostensible purpose was to make us think that's one of the great evils of modern American society, ended up not really arguing for greater leniency for the criminals profiled.

Do 14-year-olds care more what their friends think? Sure. Which is why the framework for this delusional notion had some adolescent specificity. But because 14-year-olds don't, as a rule, think better of a friend if he goes ahead and kills his parents, there's no reason to think an older version of the same dude wouldn't have come up with a 32-year-old-specific justification. Either he didn't really think his friends wanted this, but was somewhere along the line encouraged to say so (or came up with it on his own), in which case, perhaps, sociopath, or he really did think this, in which case, delusional.

The issue of 25-year-olds in foster care is something else. All of this might be a slippery slope to calling all criminals under 25 "juveniles", if it's the peer-pressure part of the brain that changes at that age.

PG said...


My point was that these articles, whose ostensible purpose was to make us think that's one of the great evils of modern American society, ended up not really arguing for greater leniency for the criminals profiled.

If there's no distinctive psychology differentiating 14-year-olds as a groups versus adults as a group in terms of what makes them commit crimes, then why wouldn't you try/sentence 14-year-olds as adults? That is, if you think these articles are utterly unpersuasive in arguing for leniency for 14-year-olds, what is persuading you that 14-year-olds shouldn't be tried/sentenced as adults?

But because 14-year-olds don't, as a rule, think better of a friend if he goes ahead and kills his parents, there's no reason to think an older version of the same dude wouldn't have come up with a 32-year-old-specific justification.

I think we're disagreeing about the importance of the content of the crime to the defendant's thinking. Part of my point is that the juvenile defendant is much less capable of grasping the full import of their actions. So that the crime in question is killing one's parents, versus stealing beer from a gas station, doesn't have the same impact as it would for an adult because of the lessened capability of considering consequences.

All of this might be a slippery slope to calling all criminals under 25 "juveniles", if it's the peer-pressure part of the brain that changes at that age.

I don't think that's likely, given that we don't have a long history in American law for making 25 a cutoff age. To my knowledge, there was not a statutory requirement before the Affordable Care Act that set 18 as the age to which parental insurance must cover children, so the ACA was not moving an existing age line further out. Also, I think the requirement of coverage until 26 is only for unmarried dependents.

21 used to be the age of majority for men in the UK, but in the U.S. that's shifted for both sexes in most areas to 18. Moreover, pushing "juvenile" out to 25 would probably cause many more defendants to be factually incompatible with the legal line, i.e. many more of them would actually have stabilized brain development to its adult state by then.

As with so many aspects of the body, the concern is not with an organ's changes ceasing entirely on a certain day, but the point at which those changes are much less significant than they were before. E.g. (to take an area with which I have more experience than neurology), degeneration of one's eyesight is supposed to stabilize before receiving LASIK surgery, but that doesn't mean surgeons require that your eyes stay precisely the same. A fractional increase in near-sightedness over the course of a year between eye appointments won't render you ineligible for surgery. Also, because the eye continues to grow during childhood, if you're first diagnosed as near-sighted as a kid you generally shouldn't be considered for surgery until 21 because your near-sightedness is probably shifting with the growth of the eyes. But there might be individuals for whom this isn't the case, whose eyes stabilize unusually early, which is why there isn't a legal ban on LASIK for 18-year-olds.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"If there's no distinctive psychology differentiating 14-year-olds as a groups versus adults as a group in terms of what makes them commit crimes, then why wouldn't you try/sentence 14-year-olds as adults?"

It could be what Caryatis suggests (but doesn't personally agree with) above - that 14-year-olds can be reformed, in a way that 34-year-olds cannot.

It could also be a common sense of fairness - someone who's had a chance to make their way in the world and ended up at X is different from someone who never had a shot at life. If we set aside the law and look just at common understandings, we recognize that certain behavior in the very young hints at future assholery, but it's not considered fair to say that we know how someone will turn out. We might need to weigh the potential danger to society of letting out someone clearly off, against the injustice to the person who committed a crime before having a chance to be an adult.

Anyway, I'd just repeat that there's a huge difference between a peer pressure crime, a kids being kids and things getting out of hand crime, and something like this. I think I explained as well as I could why I don't think the particular framing of it - delusions of what friends would want - is terribly important.