NEW YORK — In 1978, a 15-year-old boy named Willie Bosket shot and killed two men in separate incidents, both of which involved robberies. Bosket pleaded guilty to both murders and was sentenced to five years in prison, the longest sentence allowed under state law at the time.
The public outcry surrounding Bosket’s case helped turn the political tide and ushered in the passing of the Juvenile Offender Act of 1978, which made juveniles as young as 13 convicted of certain crimes punishable as adults. The law, often referred to as the Willie Bosket Law, served as a model for the whole nation as it tilted towards a harder approach to juvenile crime.
Tessa Majors’ murder case is likely to also reverberate through the system, shaping policy around juvenile justice, as cases with such brutality — and high visibility — involving teenage offenders have done in the past.
She was an 18-year-old Barnard College student from Virginia who had recently moved to New York and was found with multiple stabbing wounds Wednesday night in Morningside Park, not far from Columbia University and her college. She died at the hospital.
A 13-year-old boy was arrested Friday morning and brought to Family Court. He has not yet been formally charged. But charges of murder in the second degree, robbery in the first degree and criminal possession of a weapon are likely to be filed at his next court hearing Tuesday.
This is now testing a city that has touted its progressive approach to juvenile justice since it passed raise the age in 2017, landmark legislation that raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 and changed the approach to juvenile justice in the state. New York was the penultimate state in the nation to do so.
“With cases like this, there’s always a risk that the reaction of the public is set by the political reaction, and that they use these cases to make changes to the policy and to the jurisprudence,” said Jeffrey A. Butts, the director of the Research & Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Voters and elected officials who opposed campaigns such as raise the age might use this case as an example for a need to maintain tougher approaches on youth crime, he said.
“Politicians like it where there’s a name and a face they can attach to a policy agenda,” Butts said.
Criticism on social media
The family court that is prosecuting this case was formed in 1962, under a national push for an alternative path for juveniles in the system. Under state law, adult courts can prosecute cases involving minor offenders that are charged with intentional murder.
The allegations made so far against the 13-year-old are that he was taking part in a robbery when a murder occurred — a charge that in New York legal language is called felony murder — not that he was the one directly responsible for the victim’s death.
Supporters of hard-line approaches to youth crime were quick to weigh in on the case on social media.
“If you’re old enough to make the decision to carry a knife, set out to mug some1 & then decide to murder them during the act of robbing them, you’re not a child, you’re a full blown killer. In cases like this, I wish capital punishment age could be lowered,” a Twitter user identifying as AAARPGodess wrote.
“Bill de Blasio, you are accountable for the rise in crime by tying the hands of our law enforcement. How do you sleep at night,” a woman wrote on Twitter.
An association called New Yorkers for Safer Streets, which says on its website it’s interested in “larger policy efforts which can address the underlying causes of crime and declining quality of life citywide,” used the hashtag “#victimsfirst” in a post decrying the number of public safety incidents reported in Morningside Park in 2019.
Crime in the park has declined over the years, much like the rest of the city, but an uptick in robberies and other crimes have been reported in 2019, according to police statistics.
On Friday, Rachel Glantz, a lawyer from the city’s Law Department — which prosecutes cases where the defendant is a minor — said the accusations are the most serious a family court can handle, and asked the judge to detain the boy.
“I will ask the court to consider the very serious nature of these charges,” Glantz said during the hearing.
Hanna Kaplan, the Legal Aid Society lawyer representing the 13-year-old, tried to have him released.
“There is no allegation that my client touched the complainant in this case,” she said. “The allegation is merely that my client was present when this took place.”
Judge Karen I. Lupuloff ordered the teen locked up, saying the allegations against him were too serious to cut him loose, even given his age.
”The court remands this young man,” the judge said. “He would be at an exceptionally serious risk of harm to the community.”
Another teenage suspect was arrested Friday, but by Saturday evening all charges against him were dropped, and he was released. A third suspect, believed to be a 14-year-old, is still at large.
This story has been updated.