Saturday, October 2, 2010

Charge first, then investigate

Back on August 2, an 11 year-old boy in Kansas City apparently shot and killed his father.  As I recall the details from the original story, police upon entering the home determined the house was uninhabitable.  I definitely remember mention of exposed wires and other structural concerns, and I can only imagine that sanitation issues were also present.  Yesterday, prosecutors dropped the charges of second-degree murder and armed criminal action against the boy, saying that the years of severe neglect the boy had suffered left him with "no choice" but to shoot his father.  Not many details have been revealed, but what we have learned suggests that this boy was living a life more horrific than we might easily imagine.  I shudder to think what was going on the night of the shooting that left the boy with no choice.

I am glad to see that good sense and human decency have prevailed here.  From what few details have been released, it seemed clear to me that the last person who should be held accountable for this man's death is the young boy who was treated so horribly.  First, daddy dearest should be held responsible for putting his son in the position of needing to pick up a gun to protect himself.  Other family members who let the boy remain in those deplorable conditions should bear some of the blame.  I don't know whether the state agency responsible for investigating abuse and neglect were ever notified about this boy, but if they were, boy, should they be held responsible.  I'll also level some blame at all the other adults who had a chance to see this boy and not pick up on what was going on in his life.  Bottom line is the severely neglected kid should be receiving care, treatment, and support, not a criminal record.

The juvenile court held open a child-in-need-of-care petition in the case, so the boy will be able to receive some of the care and treatment he so desperately needs.  I want to credit the prosecutors and the court for finding the right resolution to this case, but I don't quite want to let them off the hook for filing murder charges against him in the first place.  The linked article notes that the boy was brought into court wearing shackles, which would seem a ridiculous overreaction for almost all 11 year-olds, let alone one who should not have been regarded as a criminal.  (Whether any 11 year-old should be regarded as a criminal is a topic for a different post, but long-time readers might have a good guess what my thoughts on that topic are.)

So the default position was to assume this severely neglected boy was a felon and then let an investigation clear him.  Shouldn't the presumption work exactly the other way?  Especially with a child this young.  The state didn't need to file felony charges against him to take this boy into custody.  That much ought to be obvious.  A severely neglected child found in an uninhabitable house can be taken into protective custody.  It shouldn't have been that hard to keep him in state custody pending psychiatric evaluations, educational evaluations, etc.  Not to mention it shouldn't have been difficult for a judge to decide there was no suitable familial placement available for this boy since his family let him live this way without intervention.  But instead of treating an 11 year-old as a child in need of care and letting an in depth investigation reveal whether the boy should in fact be charged with some form of murder, the powers that be defaulted to charging a crime and then deciding whether that charge was actually warranted.

I'm disturbed that this seems to be the way things work in the criminal justice system anymore.  The charge is filed first and then the prosecution investigates to see if the charge will hold up.  Prosecutors shouldn't file charges so lightly, though, because the mere fact of being charged with a crime can be devastating.  Adults can lose jobs.  They can lose thousands of dollars to bondsmen and to attorneys.  And they don't get any of that back when it turns out the complaining witness was a big, fat liar or an alibi turns out to be ironclad.  But think of how emotionally devastating a charge might have been to this little boy.  For years, he had no one to protect him or stick up for him.  When he finally reached the point where he could stick up for himself, he was immediately treated like a criminal for doing so.  Will he ever have the courage to stick up for himself again?

The need for police and prosecutors to investigate a case fully and make sure they understand the facts before filing charges has never seemed more starkly obvious than in this case.  This boy had suffered more than enough without the state piling on by accusing him of murder.

1 comment:

Miss Conduct PDX said...

We're missing one thing in this story. There was a person, maybe two, who really stepped up for this kid--his court appointed defense team.

Without their hard work, the prosecutor would most likely never have come to the conclusion that the poor kid had no other choice. That screams of good, careful, defense investigation done by dedicated folks.

Hopefully, they get to stick with him through the next ordeal that will come with being taken into state protective custody. The state makes a crappy parent.

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