In the Eye of the Storm: Remembering the Most Vulnerable

As with most natural disasters, the attention of the media was initially centered on the havoc wrecked by Hurricane Sandy. We were drawn to its most dramatic images – the dangling crane at the construction site of a luxury high-rise in Midtown Manhattan; the New York City building whose façade collapsed, resembling the open side of a dollhouse; the half-submerged roller coaster, all that remained of an amusement park on the Jersey shore; the river of water running through the narrow streets of Hoboken; and the weeping mother who lost two toddlers amidst the flooding on Staten Island. We watched cable news. We texted REDCROSS to 90999.  We donated canned goods and batteries. Yet, consistent with human nature, our interest soon faded.

Juvenile Hall is Often No Place for Kids

DURHAM, N.C. — The local detention center where my juvenile clients are held while their cases are pending is called the “Youth Home.” The irony of the label is never lost on me, as the contrast between the name and the reality could hardly be starker. The rundown building is surrounded by barbed wire. Inside, kids sleep in narrow locked cells, no different from what you’d find in an adult jail. They are subjected to strip searches and attend an hour or two of “school” in a crowded room filled with a random selection of books. Juveniles are detained here for a variety of reasons.

Reconsidering Life Sentences for Juveniles who Kill

In the 1993 book “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean tells the story of people directly impacted by capital punishment – convicted murderers counting down to their own executions, wardens and guards dutifully operating the machinery of death, and victims who are consumed by rage and grief. Prejean’s book, upon which the popular movie was based, is much more than a memoir. Well-researched and annotated, it carefully explores the legal, ethical and philosophical issues raised by the most controversial form of punishment in the United States. But the power of the book comes from its candor – from the fact that Prejean began her journey without a clear perspective or opinion on the death penalty. I read “Dead Man Walking” when it was first published. I had recently graduated from law school and was clerking for an appellate court judge. Although only vaguely interested in criminal law, I finished it quickly, engrossed by Prejean’s account of her experiences as a spiritual adviser for men on death row and moved by her struggle to find common ground with the families of victims.

I thought of this last weekend after reading Ethan Bronner’s article in The New York Times on reactions to Miller v. Alabama, the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. With more than 2,000 offenders across the country who may be resentenced as a result of Miller, Bronner focused on a single case – a pregnant teen killed by her 15-year-old boyfriend – and prominently featured an interview with the victim’s sister, Bobbi Jamriska, who is active in the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers. Unlike Prejean’s book, but typical of most coverage of criminal sentencing, the Times article explicitly pits juveniles serving life sentences against victims’ families; it asserts without attribution that the decision in Miller threw “thousands” like Jamriska into “anguished turmoil at the prospect that the killers of their loved ones may walk the streets again.” Such hyperbole only perpetuates the notion that the ideal resolution is always to warehouse young offenders – without opportunity for review of their sentences – forever. I do respect Mr. Bronner’s work, but I don’t agree with the way he handled this piece and I told him so.

When the Law Doesn’t Fit the Crime: Lessons from the Blogosphere

Practicing criminal law is not rocket science. It’s also not open-heart surgery. But it’s more than just slapping a slice of cheese between two pieces of bread and calling it a sandwich. Although there are occasional dramatic wins and devastating losses, it is often dull and technical. This is part of the reason why earning a law degree requires years of study and why a comprehensive examination must be passed before you can receive a law license.

Changing our Response to Infanticide

The facts are still coming in. All we know is what the media is reporting: a newborn is dead, a 14 year-old girl has been charged with first-degree murder, and a grand jury indictment means she will be tried as an adult.

According to a news release from the local sheriff’s office, on Sept. 19, 2012, Cassidy Goodson went into labor in the bathroom of her family’s mobile home in Lakeland, Florida.  To hide her cries of pain, she placed a towel in her mouth and ran the water in the faucet. She used a pair of scissors to pry the nine and a half pound baby out of her womb and into the toilet, where she squeezed its neck until it stopped moving. Then she cleaned up the bathroom, showered with the dead baby, and placed the infant’s body in a shoebox along with her soiled clothes and towels.

Building Bridges Instead of Walls

Growing up, I lived a short bike ride away from my grandmother.  An elementary school reading teacher, she was always a source of stability for me. When I would go to her with my problems – an argument with a friend, a disagreement with my mother – she would remind me to take a step back and try to build a bridge instead of a wall. With this lesson in mind, I do my best to have cordial interactions with everyone in the court system, though at times it can be trying.  Emotions fly, tempers flare and the inevitable happens: defense attorneys become annoyed by prosecutors, probation officers are frustrated with judges, and we all suffer the effects of working within an adversarial system. A couple of weeks ago, we had our annual panel of speakers from the local juvenile courts in the seminar that I teach each fall.  Judges, prosecutors and probation officers are invited to share their insights and experiences with our 24 third-year law students who defend children charged with crimes in delinquency court.

When Children Kill Other Children

Last week there was yet another  heartbreaking report of a child killing another child.  This time the news came from Jacksonville, Florida.  Cristian Fernandez is accused of beating to death his two-year-old half brother, David, when he was just twelve years old.  The state has charged Cristian with first-degree murder.  He is being prosecuted as an adult and could face a life sentence. Stories like this get a lot of media attention.  Reporters swarm and sensationalize.  The public consumes and wants more.  To sell their papers, to drive traffic to their web sites, the press complies. He sounds like a bad kid, we think as we read the details.  Only a monster would commit such an act, we tell each other.  He must be truly evil, we conclude as we turn the page to the next tragedy. But wait, there is more.

Taking the Time to Make Juvenile Court Work

A couple of weeks ago, I was in juvenile delinquency court and as often happens, a particular case got me thinking – and rethinking – about the system as a whole. A 14 year-old, whom I will call Sarah, was charged with misdemeanor assault.  She had hit another girl at the foster care facility where the two were living.  Sarah readily admitted to the charge, and the judge then moved to disposition, similar to sentencing in adult court.  A counselor reported that Sarah was receiving therapy and doing well in a class at the mediation center on “conflict coaching.” Her probation officer recommended that she remain on court supervision under the same terms.

The judge, however, wasn’t satisfied.  “I’m concerned,” she said to Sarah sternly.  “This is the third or fourth adjudication for assault in the past two years.  What is changing to help you get in charge of your emotions?”

Sarah stood and looked down at her hands.  “I don’t know.”  The courtroom was silent. “Your Honor,” her public defender began, standing with his client.  “Sarah has experienced significant trauma.  She is struggling with serious issues that are deep-seeded.  This is not to excuse her behavior, but to explain that she is receiving therapy and making improvements.”

As the hearing continued, I learned that Sarah’s father had never been a presence in her life and that her mother had died several years earlier.  She had been in residential group settings ever since. “Why do you become angry?” the judge asked the girl.  Sarah spoke haltingly. “When I see other people with mothers and fathers, I get upset,” she whispered.  Tears ran down her cheeks.

For Children and Families, It’s a Poorly Mixed World

The academic year has started at the law school where I teach third-year students advocacy skills and legal doctrine in the area of juvenile courts and delinquency. At the beginning of each semester, I meet individually with each of my students in the Juvenile Justice Clinic to get a sense of their backgrounds, interests, and expectations. I answer their questions and try to assuage their concerns, for within a matter of weeks they will be traveling to unfamiliar neighborhoods for client interviews, learning North Carolina criminal law and procedure, and appearing in juvenile delinquency court for motions and hearings. In one recent conversation, I used the phrase, “It’s a small world,” when a student mentioned someone I had known decades ago.  “Actually,” he replied, with a half-smile, “it’s not a small world; it’s just a poorly mixed world.”

That evening I recalled a visit I had made several years earlier to the home of a juvenile client. The boy, whom I’ll call Daniel, resided a mere mile from my house. He was 12 and lived with his parents and three younger siblings in a single-story concrete structure that was more like a free-standing garage or outbuilding than anything else; inside it was sparsely furnished, dark and dank. I had never been on his block and was unfamiliar with the surrounding streets. Upon entering and seeing there was no place to speak with Daniel alone, I sat with him outside on the curb. We discussed his court case, and I learned that he had severe learning disabilities, asthma, and a hearing impairment that resulted from chronic ear infections. I went inside and spoke with his parents, well-meaning folks who worked when they could find jobs and did their best to patch together what was left of the social safety net to feed and clothe their children. They offered me a soft drink, and I tried not to flinch as a cockroach scrambled over my feet. Then I went home. At that time, I lived with my husband and two daughters on a cul-de-sac in a tony subdivision with a soccer field and lush backyards. There were rooms in our house that we rarely used.  After two and half hours with Daniel and his family, the five-minute drive failed to prepare me for the culture shock I experienced upon entering my neighborhood.