Crushed Against the Law: A Child Offender’s Encounter with Blind Justice

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by Robert Saleem Holbrook

“Trust me,” said my attorney confidently, “you’re young with no juvenile detention record, the judge and district attorney will take that into consideration. The death penalty or life without parole is not an option for a juvenile ‘lookout’ to a homicide. You’ll be all right.” Those were my attorney’s words a couple hours before I was sentenced to life without parole for being a ‘lookout’ to a drug-related homicide. I stood there and listened as the judge dispassionately stated that he was not bound by law to take into consideration my age and immaturity in determining the sentence imposed upon me. I honestly believe I would have encountered more sympathy from a hungry pack of tigers than from the judge that sentenced me to LWOP for a crime I participated in, unknowingly at that, at the age of 16. To be straight, I’ve encountered more sympathy from mass murders, rapists and vicious psychopaths in the 18 years I’ve been imprisoned than a child offender will encounter in a Pennsylvania courtroom when charged as an “adult” for committing or participating in a homicide. He or she could not encounter a more ruthless predator than the prosecutor and judge who will stand there and argue with a straight face that the child standing in front of them is not a child but rather an “adult offender” trapped in a child’s body. Before they will even come to develop their sense of humanity and individuality a child offender will stand there and listen, vainly attempting to comprehend, as their humanity and identity as an adolescent is stripped away in a courtroom dedicated to upholding the law and preserving the rights of all people.

Children are the most vulnerable segment of any population because their lives and rights are entrusted to the society they belong to. They have no voice for themselves; therefore the law – at least in theory – entrusts their well being to society. However, as it stands now, an abandoned animal garners more sympathy than a child offender charged and sentenced as an adult for participating in or committing a homicide. Does that statement sound extreme? Consider this: in the United States, there are over 2,300 prisoners serving LWOP for participating in or committing a homicide as child offenders. In the rest of the world, there are a total of ZERO. Consider the absurdity of that. A child offender who makes a terrible decision as a youth in the United States would receive a more balanced sense of justice and leniency in countries such as China, Libya, Cuba, and Mexico that they would at home. Countries that habitually violate and disregard human rights extend more protection to their child offenders than the United States which proclaims itself a defender of human rights.

Sentencing a child offender to LWOP is a violation of a child’s human rights. No matter what legal language the state employs under the guise of protecting society, a child does not cease being a child despite a terrible decision he/she makes that runs afoul of the law. And what type of society needs protection from its own children? A human right is defined as a basic fundamental right that is inherent. It is not bestowed by the state, it is a universal right that is to be protected by the state and, in extension, by the international community of nations. The United Nation’s Conventional on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Treaty has been signed and ratified by every nation in the world with the exception of the United States and Somalia.# The CRC establishes fundamental rights of children that cannot be infringed upon by the states. The CRC acknowledges the special right of children that reflect their unique vulnerabilities, needs and the affirmative responsibility of governments to protect them.

Recognizing a need to address children that run afoul of the law and the need to protect child offenders from draconian or grossly disproportionate sentences, the CRC prohibits sentences that eliminate the ability of child offenders to evolve into better adults and one day re-enter society. Article 37(a) states:

Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offenses committed by person under eighteen years of age.

Since the United States has not ratified this treaty this prohibition lands on deaf ears in courtrooms around the United States. Child offenders and their parents still want to believe in vain that the state will develop a conscience and recognize and take into consideration the age and immaturity of their children in the court of law. That ain’t going to happen. Like a lamb before the slaughter they will stand in front of a judge’s bench and have not only their human rights stripped but also their freedom and ability to one day develop into a reformed adult capable of entering society.

Just attempt to imagine what it feels like to be a 34 year old man condemned to die in prison for a terrible decision, made under duress, when you were a child? Then being denied the ability to ever demonstrate that the person you are at 34 is not the child you were at 16. A life under a cloud of utter hopelessness perpetually drifts over the head of a prisoner serving LWOP for a crime he committed or participated in as a child offender. He is forever condemned to his past despite the accomplishments and maturity he has developed as an adult. It is no wonder then that the U.N.’s Committee on Torture stated in 2005 that LWOP for child offenders could constitute a violation of the international prohibition against cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment.

Picture the absurdity and mental anguish of a child offender sentenced to LWOP and denied the opportunity of parole release for being a “lookout” to a homicide in Pennsylvania watching Charles Manson, a psychopathic mass murderer in California, being granted the ability to appear in front of a parole board every four years to plead his case for release. Consider the absurdity of Dennis Radar, the Kansas BTK serial killer, serving multiple life sentences, being eligible for a parole hearing in forty years or 63-year old Mr. Hilton, who murdered and beheaded a female hiker in Georgia, sentenced to life in prison and who will be eligible for parole in thirty years. How about Darrel Mack who sliced his wife’s throat – thereby killing her – to avoid a divorce settlement and then shot the judge that handled the divorce? He will be eligible for parole in 36 years. And let’s not forget Pennsylvania’s own Theodore Solano, a convicted pedophile, who in 1993 kidnapped and murdered 18 year old Olga Shugar. Solano pled guilty to a deal offered by the state prosecutor’s office that sentenced him to 17-40 years in prison. This is the same state prosecutor’s office that insisted on pursuing the death sentence of LWOP in my situation for being a 16 year old “lookout.” In addition to all of these men being mass murderers, the other thing they have in common is that all of them will have the opportunity to appear before a parole board and plead their rehabilitation while I will never have that opportunity despite having murdered no one.

Does it sound wrong that men who murdered should have the opportunity for parole while child offenders who did not murder should be denied the opportunity for parole. Defenders of LWOP would argue that the above examples are the exception not the norm; however, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, they are wrong. Human Rights Watch has documented that in eleven out of the seventeen years between 1985 and 2001, child offenders convicted of murder were more likely to enter prison with LWOP than adult murder offenders. How could the state deal more harshly with child offenders, who as children are not even entrusted with the responsibilities and privileges granted adults, than adult offenders? In what other arena are children held to a more stringent standard of responsibility than adults? A child offender charged as an adult has the absurd burden of proving he or she should be held to the accountability of a minor instead of an adult.

Let’s delve deeper into that and further consider its absurdity. Let’s reverse the situation. Suppose an adult throws a tantrum because he or she doesn’t get their way and runs amok destroying property and striking individuals in their presence, an act which results in their arrest for vandalizing and destroying property, disturbing the peace and aggravated assault. Because the adult “acted like a child” and should have “known better,” should he or she be charged as a “child offender” and be subjected to the juvenile justice system for throwing a tantrum? Should he or she be referred to as a delinquent instead of a criminal? If an adult offender attempted to use this reasoning to excuse their behavior they would be laughed out of the courtroom. Yet the same absurd scenario plays itself out in reverse in countless courtrooms across the United States for child offenders charged and sentenced as adults who are held to the responsibility and maturity level of adults because of poor decisions they made as children. Yet, in their case, the consequences are real and no one is laughing.

Justice is about punishment, but proportional punishment and not a vengeance-driven sense of justice that is blind to a child offender. Just as it is absurd to hold a child offender to the same level of responsibility and decision-making as adults, it would also be absurd to advocate that child offenders that commit homicide or participate in a homicide be given a slap on the wrist and be sent home. They should be punished in a manner that addresses the seriousness of their offense while recognizing they are children and their lives should not be extinguished and sacrificed at the altar of vengeance. When the law preys on its child offenders – on children it is obligated to protect – it is no better than the criminal predators that prey on children in society, children they are obliged (morally) to protect.

The state’s blind justice when it comes to sentencing child offenders to LWOP, which deliberately ignores their age and immaturity, not only reveals a travesty of justice in the nation’s treatment of its child offenders but also exposes the absurdity of vengeance-driven justice at the expense of the human rights of children crushed against the law in our nation’s courtrooms. God save the children, for surely the law won’t.

Robert L. Holbrook #BL-5140
SCI Greene
175 Progress Drive
Waynesburg, PA 15370

August 4, 2008