The Humane Options For a Teen Killer in Ohio

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John Last 1I have known hundreds of murderers, and befriended many of them. Most were teens or young adults when they committed their crimes. Some killed several people, some killed random victims, and some were mentally ill. Others killed family members or robbery victims. Some of them have been released from prison, usually after 20 or more years. None that I have known have killed anyone else.

I was reflecting on this while reading about 17-yeaar-old J.T. Lane, the Chardon, Ohio, youth who allegedly killed three of his classmates and wounded two others last week while they sat eating lunch in their high school cafeteria. Those killed (seen in this gallery) were Daniel Parmerter, 16, Demetrius Hewlin, 16, and Russell King, 17. The wounded were Nick Walczak, 17, who remains hospitalized, and Joy Rickers, 18, who was released from the hospital shortly after the shooting.

The suffering generated by these events is beyond reckoning, and talk has begun about what should happen to Lane and what is a just response to this tragedy. He has reportedly confessed to the shooting, and in all likelihood his case will be transferred to the adult court, where he will be eligible for the maximum sentence of life without parole. He, like all juveniles, is ineligible for the death penalty.

The Associated Press  reported that the Geauga County prosecutor, David Joyce, characterized Lane as “not well.” Mandatory transfer to adult court will happen if Joyce can show probable cause, which is nearly a given in a case with so many witnesses and a reported confession. The release of court records has shown that Lane had some brushes with the law. Additionally, both of his parents have been convicted of domestic abuse (against one another), and the father was imprisoned.

Dramatic and highly publicized crimes like this point out a big deficiency in the country’s approach to juvenile justice. Obviously, Lane must be incarcerated, not only to keep society safe, but to mete the justice that cases like these cry out for. The options are few. If he is tried as a juvenile he would be incarcerated for only a few years. It is unlikely that he will be ready for society in such a short time. Whatever rehabilitation and treatment he needs to make him safe again will take longer than the three or so years he could remain in juvenile custody. Also, such a short time is unlikely to satisfy the need for justice felt by his victims.

The alternative, to try him as an adult, also has problems. First, whatever the law says, he is not an adult, and to face adult consequences for his actions is illogical and even wrong. There is a good chance that he can be redeemed, given the proper treatment. As an adult, he is likely to receive life without parole. Undoubtedly, some see this as just. I do not. I imagine him as an old man, dying in a prison hospice in 2082, and I feel no satisfaction with this outcome either. It seems such a waste, not only of money but of human potential as well. In that far away year he will surely be a different person, far different than the young man he is now, the one who is “not well.”

Potentially he can receive a life sentence but maintain the possibility of parole. This, to me, seems the best course. If he remains a danger, or if it is determined that justice demands it, he can remain in prison until he dies. The decision can be made by those best equipped to make it, in the future. If, however, after some number of years, he is deemed to be no longer a threat to society he can be released. That is difficult to accept now, when the crime is so fresh and the suffering is just beginning, but it is a foreseeable future that is based on mercy and hope, and backed up by research that shows he will most likely be amenable to rehabilitative efforts.

In prison my friends and I judged by a particular criterion. When we talked about whether or not someone should be paroled we would ask a simple question. Would we want the person to live next door to our loved ones? If I apply this toT.J. Lanetoday then the answer is no. In a decade or so I will be willing to ask the question again. I’d like to see him get that chance.

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