Youth's life term smacks of overkill
By James Alan Fox
Monday,  May 8, 2006

 Kentell Weaver, formerly of Roxbury, has a new permanent address, with emphasis on the "permanent." Convicted of fatally shooting 15-year-old Germaine Rucker during a gang-involved confrontation in August 2003, Weaver, now 18, was sentenced last week to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

In the words of the victim's father as well as Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, "justice was done." Frankly, I'm not so sure.

Weaver, barely 16 at the time of the shooting, may not have been a model teen. But he hardly seems the habitual monster envisioned by lawmakers who crafted the current juvenile murder statute.

The 1996 law, which mandates that offenders as young as 14 charged with murder be automatically tried as adults, passed during an emotional groundswell in the wake of the high-profile, exceptionally brutal murder of a Somerville woman by her 15-year-old neighbor, Eddie O'Brien. As usual, laws designed with worst-case thinking are often ill-conceived when applied to lesser cases like Weaver.

Clearly, juveniles should not be able to hide behind a shield of youthfulness, if they've demonstrated a pattern of violence. But Weaver showed no such pattern, as the Rucker shooting was his first conviction. Moreover, Weaver, accompanied and encouraged by his mother, went to police to confess his role in the deadly altercation.

What the law overlooks is that teen killers are simply not adults. They may walk, talk and even shoot like adults, but they think and reason like the immature youngsters they are.

Those who insist on "adult time for adult crime" believe that such sanctions will encourage kids to think twice. Yet, they often act without thinking even once. Typically impulsive, impatient and impudent, juveniles kill over trivial reasons, like the "bling" that Rucker was showing off.

Few people, not even a liberal academic like me, wish to bring back the days when young killers, unless transferred by a juvenile court judge to criminal court, were routinely released at age 21. But the unsatisfactory choice between too little and too much punishment was resolved in 1991 when the juvenile homicide penalty in Massachusetts was lengthened to 20 years - that is, before rising rates of youth violence in the early 1990s and the O'Brien case prompted today's automatic adult-time provision.

It's time to rethink our rigid juvenile murder law, and allow lesser penalties for perpetrators who, by virtue of emotional and cognitive immaturity, are less responsible. I say less responsible, rather than not responsible. Kids know that killing is wrong, though they may not fully grasp the pain that they cause through their actions.

A 20-year sentence would hardly be a "slap on the wrist," would make a reasonable gesture to justice and would keep the offender off the street through his most violence-prone years. Plus, isn't there something better to do with a prison cell than to continue incarcerating someone approaching 40 whose criminal history is really history?

Let me anticipate the angry e-mails from those who will intimate that my ivory-tower thinking would change were it my child who was gunned down. As a surviving victim, absolutely I would feel differently about that perpetrator, whether juvenile or adult. In such a case, of course, I would be barred from serving on the jury and would not be the one to determine sentence.

Justice, however, is not measured by those who walk in victims' shoes or even by the prosecutor, but the rest of us who are impartial. As a neutral observer, I contend that throwing away the key on kids like Kentell Weaver is not justice but vengeance.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at