March 1, 2001

Trying alleged Dartmouth killer as an adult would be a mistake
James Alan Fox

IF I WERE a wagering man, I'd bet the ranch, the garage and the family car that 16-year-old James Parker, who along with his 17-year-old buddy is believed to have brutally killed Half and Susanne Zantop, will be transferred to adult court for prosecution.  Whatever his suitability for this waiver decision, sentiment in the court of public opinion will no doubt prevail upon the criminal proceedings.

Notwithstanding the strong support for such an action, treating Parker as an adult would be regrettable, if not an outright mistake.  Pretending that he has the same capacity as an adult to weigh the consequences of his behavior defies all that we know about teenagers and youth violence.

No one can question, of course, the need to punish juvenile offenders sufficiently.  Youth crime must carry appropriate sanctions and surely the current New Hampshire provision for incarcerating juvenile offenders up until their 21st birthday results in a woefully inadequate penalty, by virtually anyone's standard of justice.

We can all sympathize with the loss and anguish suffered by surviving victims of juvenile homicide.  To the Zantops' daughters, their friends, indeed the entire Dartmouth community touched by the tragedy, it matters not whether Parker is 16 or 46 -- the two beloved professors are just as dead.

Furthermore, there are indeed certain repeat, violent, chronic, ruthless juveniles who have proven through their recidivism that they are not amenable to treatment.  Repeated failures to learn from earlier brushes with the law clearly indicates an inability to change.  Such underage incorrigibles can and should be sent to the adult system.

Yet contrary to New Hampshire's recent practice of certifying all juveniles charged with murder as adults, the courts need to be judicious and selective in making this determination.  While murder is an "adult-like" crime, the inspiration often stems from immaturity -- for example, kids committing murder in order to impress their peers or even to fulfill a dare.

We do not as yet have a clear understanding of the motive for the Zantop homicides.  If, however, the alleged perpetrators are anything like the 30 percent of juvenile murderers in this country who kill with an accomplice, teenage bonding may have had much to do with the motivation.  In the company of friends and with their encouragement, adolescents frequently behave in horrible ways that are totally out of character.  Any concern for the victims is sacrificed to peer expectations.  Acting out of a sense of loyalty to friends/accomplices does not excuse the crimes, of course, but it is surely an important mitigating element.

We must fully consider the special nature of youthful offending -- even murder.  Teenagers may look like adults, dress like adults, act like adults, even kill like adults, but they reason like children.

There is even some recent neurological evidence out of McLean Hospital showing that the portion of the brain (the frontal lobe) which controls the capacity to evaluate consequences does not develop fully until late adolescence or early adulthood.  For many kids, it's a case of "I didn't think things would turn out this way!"

By virtue of their youth, adolescents often fail to appreciate fully how precious life really is.  They act with reckless abandon, giving little thought to the consequences for themselves, much less for their victims.

This is not to say, of course, that kids have no ability to consider consequences, only less than adults and, therefore, should be held to a lesser standard of criminal responsibility.  Moreover, the research evidence is unequivocal that trying juveniles as adults neither serves to reduce recidivism nor deters others.  Adult penalties don't make kids think twice, when many of them don't even think once.

The waiver decision for Parker puts the court between the proverbial rock and hard place.  Penalties under the juvenile code would be too lenient, while those under the adult criminal code would be too harsh.  A compromise approach is needed for young killers -- one that recognizes the lesser culpability of teens but provides sufficient punishment to satisfy our need for justice.

Making the juvenile justice system more just and punitive is one thing, but diminishing its role it is quite another.  At least for the sake of future James Parkers, New Hampshire lawmakers should follow the example of other states by lengthening juvenile penalties, rather than trading up for the adult version.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston.  He as published several books on homicide, including "The Will to Kill, Making Sense of Senseless Murder"(Allyn & Bacon, 2001).