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Background: Kids and Crime

January 14, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDGE EUGENE MOORE: Let there be no misunderstanding …

RAY SUAREZ: This sentence was awaited by Americans on all sides of the juvenile justice debates.

JUDGE EUGENE MOORE: Therefore, this court orders that Nathaniel Abraham be placed in the juvenile system and be committed to FIA for placement at boys’ training school.

RAY SUAREZ: After his 21st birthday, Nathaniel Abraham will be a free man. Under this sentence, he won’t serve time with adults.

SPOKESMAN: … indicates the court has received a note from the jury that they have reached a verdict…

RAY SUAREZ: Last November, 13-year-old Nathaniel Abraham became the youngest person ever convicted of murder in the United States. He was the first minor tried under Michigan’s 3-year-old juvenile justice law which allows juveniles to be charged and sentenced as adults. Two years earlier, on Oct. 29, 1997, Abraham came here to the woods near a convenience store in Pontiac, Mich. With a borrowed rifle, he shot a stranger, Ronnie Greene, in the head, killing him.

SPOKESMAN: Will you raise your right hand, please? Your right hand.

RAY SUAREZ: In his early court appearances, the then-11-year- old Abraham looked and sounded like an ordinary kid. At 4’9″, he was so small that witnesses say his feet dangled above the floor when he sat in the witness chair.

PROSECUTOR: This is a working Remington Nylon 66, .22-caliber rifle. He knew that it worked, he knew how to use it.

RAY SUAREZ: Prosecutors argued that Abraham intended to kill Greene. The boy had had numerous run-ins with police and had been accused of assault, burglary and robbery.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: All of us know if we give a child like Nate a gun, they will shoot it.

RAY SUAREZ: The defense — led by Geoffrey Fieger, who had represented Dr. Jack Kevorkian — contended Abraham had been shooting at the trees and was not guilty of murder.

DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Were you in a special education class?

NATHANIEL: Yes, sir.

RAY SUAREZ: Abraham’s attorneys said Nathaniel was mildly retarded, with the reasoning ability of a 6-year-old, and therefore could not have planned and carried out the crime. Abraham was acquitted of the four original charges, including first-degree murder, assault and two firearms charges. He was convicted of second-degree murder. Under Michigan law, a first-degree murder conviction would have meant a life sentence without parole. Judge Eugene Moore rejected a delayed sentence, while acknowledging it would be less controversial. He said the looming deadline of this young killer’s 21st birthday will focus the system on the need for effective rehab.

JUDGE EUGENE MOORE: If we commit ourselves to this, we can ensure our safety now and in the future. The safety net of a delayed sentence removes too much of the urgency. We can’t continue to see incarceration in adult prison as a long-term solution. The danger is we that won’t take rehabilitation seriously if we know we can utilize prison in the future. To sentence juveniles to adult prison is ignoring the possibility that we are creating more a dangerous criminal by housing juveniles with hardened adults.

RAY SUAREZ: Finally, the judge addressed the 13-year-old directly.

JUDGE EUGENE MOORE: Do you begin to understand what you have done? You clearly need to put yourself in another person’s shoes. You learn to need to think before you act. You need to look at the consequences of your behavior for yourself and for others. You have probably done the worst thing that could be done, and that is to kill another human being. You are going to have to come to terms with this before you can begin to grow as a person and develop the potential that all children possess. In the long run, you will best have your own needs met by concerning yourself with the needs of others.