Articles Posted in Juvenile Law Offenses

I often wonder how people in some professions can sometimes do what they do, unavoidably exposed to what they must see as part of their work, and not give up entirely on the human race, the human condition. Beyond my own profession as a Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer, I’m thinking of two other professions: law enforcement and news reporting – because those two professions see the worst of what our world has to offer. Reading what follows, you will know what I mean.

Damian Merida is (almost was,) a 30 year-old Guatemalan. He immigrated to this country when he was young, after most of his ten brothers and sisters preceded him here, because they were living in a dirt-floor house inside a poverty-wracked village that had almost no food, medicine, employment, or future. As it had for so many others before his family, the United States beckoned as a place where a chance at making something of yourself, a chance at a decent life, still existed. He and his siblings settled in Lynn, Massachusetts. While he entered the country without legal approval – and while I can already hear the far-right’s cries of “He’s “an illegal” – he got what he deserved,” the fact remains that what I will describe was done to him, had no relation whatsoever to his being a legal or illegal immigrant. He could have had a file folder full of stamped and certified immigration papers on him, and this savagery would have happened anyway. (It’s also a fact that if any of the conservative right found themselves living in a dirt-floor hut in a dirt-poor country with no hope and no future, they’d enter this country any way they could, legally or illegally.)

On July 22, As Merida slept under a shade tree in Robert McManus Field in Lynn, a wide, grassy park about a mile from his house, a pack of children allegedly descended on the 30-year-old landscaper, and savagely beat him with a mix of bricks, bottles, sticks and rocks. The savage and inhuman attack has provoked questions and incited fear throughout this city and beyond, because according to the Lynn Police Department, Merida was targeted solely because of his ethnicity. His alleged attackers are six boys age 11 to 14; most were on championship sports teams, and one is an immigrant himself, from West Africa. Hate ran through their young veins – hate almost certainly inspired and cultivated by parents and older youths. Authorities are investigating whether this same group of boys was responsible for an attack in the Lynn area two weeks prior to the attack on Merida, on another man from Guatemala. Lynn police are urging the victim to come forward.

I’ve dedicated several posts to this subject, because the problem of school bullying and student violence has become so pervasive. It is a reflection of the violence and vulgarity that pervades our society, in everything from video games such as “Grand Theft Auto,” which is filled with sickening and gratuitous violence, to television and movies, to the ubiquitous (and often dangerous) internet.

This growing infection of violence and brutality is being witnessed, of course, in a new generation of school children who are among the most abusive and disrespectful in decades. I’ve seen this first-hand. The origins of this behavior have produced the very problem of bullying in our schools that led to the death of Charles Walker, as well as so many other bullying victims in other schools across this country. The numbers are frightening. Google “School Bullying Victims Committing Suicide,” and you’ll be shocked.

Some suggested solutions:

In my previous post on this subject, I wrote of how an 11 year-old boy in Springfield, Massachusetts, Charles Joseph Walker-Hoover, killed himself last week after suffering repeated taunts and bullying at the hands of fellow students at the New Charter Leadership School in Springfield, Massachusetts. According to the boy’s mother, Sirdeaner L. Walker, Carl had reported to her that students regularly beat, taunted and threatened him because they believed he was gay – even though, according to Carl’s mother, he was not gay. In what regrettably no longer comes as a shock, several of the students who threatened and bullied Carl were not just boys, but girls also. It’s been reported that shortly before young Walker committed suicide, a female classmate threatened to kill him because he acted too feminine. Probably suspecting she wasn’t feminine enough, she directed her aggression at him. So much for the old saying, “Girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice.” Don’t buy it: Girls can be just as violent and just as vicious as any boy.

Investigations have been launched, and the expected denial by school officials of any wrongdoing, (in the form of negligence in the failure of school officials to aggressively respond to prior complaints by Carl’s mother), are all taking shape. People will wring their hands, shake their heads, and say “What a pity.” The media will report the story, and it will be over. Then what? What is to be done about this problem, to minimize the odds it will happen again? Why is it that we as adults feel entitled to be protected from assault and battery, violence and abuse, but when it happens in a schoolyard, it’s too often dismissed as “child’s play?” I’ve always suspected that as adults, we don’t want to aggressively address this problem with strong legislation providing criminal penalties for children, because there’s something about ourselves in this violent behavior, that we don’t like to see, or perhaps admit. There are more anti-bullying educational programs in our schools today than there were in previous generations, as there are more awareness programs about inappropriate sexual contact, and that is good. But we must now act to prevent an equally damaging type of abuse.

A new approach is required to effectively deal with this problem. First, in public and private schools seeking licensure by the state, there ought to exist mandatory educational programs not only about why bullying is bad, but how students should group together to stand up and protect students who are victims of bullying. It’s all well and good to teach students how to spot bullying, but then what? If students aren’t taught how to combat it, “recognizing” it is largely pointless: Reporting it afterward to teachers, while desirable, isn’t an effective response, for three reasons: 1) At that point, the bullying has already taken place; the victim of the bullying has already been harmed. 2) Teachers simply can’t be everywhere at all times, noticing every threatening gesture or assault that might take place; 3) Instruction on only “recognition” of bullying, doesn’t empower students to help stand up and help bullying victims when they are being assaulted. In fact, it almost makes the observer a secondary ‘victim’ – because he or she doesn’t know how to intercede.

Something happened in our midst this past week; something that should strike at the core of every public school committee and private school system in Massachusetts, and which should resonate across the United States. It is something that should keep principals awake at night, and something that should keep teachers vigilant about each day in their classrooms. This time, the subject isn’t drugs, and it isn’t sex or teen pregnancy, as serious as those subjects are. It’s far more common, far more insidious, and tragically, far more “accepted,” or at least tolerated, by school systems across this country.

It’s bullying.

Yes, the cruel, vicious abuse that the youngest of human beings are capable of. Maybe that’s why society hasn’t addressed it adequately enough so far: We don’t like to admit that such cruelty and savagery can exist inside children, our children. But the human being, regardless of age, is capable of unspeakable cruelty, and oddly enough, the display of that cruelty can appear with far greater frequency when people are very young. (Who has not heard the phrase, “Children can be so cruel“?)

In my previous post on this subject, I reported on a brutal murder which took place in Hyannis, Massachusetts last December 15 2008. Aside from the savagery that marked this particular murder, what distinguished it from most murders was the fact that two of the three defendants charged with this murder are 13 years old, and are prevented by Massachusetts’ Juvenile Offender Law from both being tried as adults under the law, and shielded from a public trial. However, what many observers consider to be far worse, is these two defendants, if found guilty, can be held in state custody only until age 18. After the age of 18, the state can petition a court to continue to incarcerate that convict until he reaches the age of 21, but that is the maximum: After reaching the age of 21, that convict must, under the Juvenile Offender statute, be released from custody. Given the shocking allegations in this case, this potential outcome has been met with understandable outrage from a number of corners.

As I explained briefly in my previous post, were either of these two 13 year old defendants just one year older – age 14 – they could be tried as adults under the Juvenile Offender Law, and if found guilty, punished as adults. That would mean life in prison without the possibility of parole, if convicted of first degree murder, and a typically a minimum of twenty years if convicted of a lesser offense involving murder. The Juvenile Offender Law protecting these 13 year-olds was designed to shield very young offenders from the punishment meted out to adult offenders. But while a laudable idea in theory, is this law ill-advised in the real world we live in? Conservatives would brand this type of law the product of “bleeding heart liberals.” While I don’t count myself among conservatives, looking at this case, it’s hard to presently disagree with that assessment.

In my capacity as an experienced Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, I have been involved with many violent cases: From Assault and Battery with a Dangerous Weapon, to Rape, to Drug Offenses, to Murder. In my opinion, rather than choose an arbitrary age (such as 13), and declare that “No one of this age or younger can be tried under the same laws as an adult,” it would be a far more just approach to gauge each case on its own facts, in deciding whether or not to subject a youthful offender to the same laws that would apply to an adult in that case. Instead of a “blanket” approach, the set of facts and allegations that independently comprise each case should determine whether or not a youthful offender should be shielded from the laws that normally apply to adults.

By now, many have read or heard of the gruesome, recent murder of a 16 year-old boy in Hyannis, Massachusetts. The body of Jordan Mendes was found buried in a ditch on Jennifer Lane in Barnstable on Tuesday night, December 16 2008. According to Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, Mendes had been stabbed and shot to death shortly after noon on December 15 2008. The next day, his body was doused with gasoline, rolled in a carpet, set on fire, and then buried, smoldering, in a dirt hole. Police have arrested three individuals for this murder.

But if the facts couldn’t get any worse, investigators allege that two of the victim’s killers were 13 year-old boys – and that one of the 13 year-olds was the victim’s half-brother. The two 13 year-olds are Kevin Ribeiro and Mykel Mendes; Mendes is the victim’s half-brother, and they share the same father, one Manuel Mendes. Manuel Mendes is a convicted cocaine dealer, who is currently serving a 35-year federal prison sentence for cocaine trafficking. The third defendant is 20 year-old Robert Vacher. According to a criminal complaint in Barnstable County District Court, investigators allege that Robert Vacher stabbed and shot Mendes, while the two 13 year-old defendants supplied the gun and the knife, and were present during the murder. The three defendants allegedly stole $10,000.00 from the victim, who was alleged by the defendants to be a drug dealer, and bought a silver BMW with the cash.

Any reasonable person would expect that all these defendants should be put on trial for murder (presumably in the first degree,) and if found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, spend the rest of their lives in prison. But it gets complicated from here – and unpleasant. Because two of these three defendants are under the age of 14, they cannot be tried as adults in Massachusetts. This is due to the state’s Juvenile Offender Law, which provides that while defendants aged 14 and older can be tried as “youthful offenders” and sentenced as adults, juveniles under the age of 14 are shielded by this statute from: 1) A public trial; and 2) If found guilty of this charge (or any criminal charge,) such juvenile defendants can only be held in state custody until a maximum of age 21. If these two 13 year-olds were 14 or older, they could be charged as youthful offenders in open court, and incarcerated past the age of 21. Under the existing law, they can’t.