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.
The Daily Item of Lynn has reported that the boys pleaded not guilty, and all but one is free pending trial. Lynn public schools suspended four of the boys indefinitely, which they reportedly have appealed. The oldest boy, age 14, is still in state custody. The sixth boy’s status is unclear. He reportedly attended St. Mary’s Junior-Senior High School last year but he did not re-enroll in the fall, according to school officials.
The boys face multiple assault charges, including armed assault with intent to murder, as well as a civil rights violation, due to the allegation that they allegedly targeted him because he was an immigrant. Acting Lynn Police Chief Kevin Coppinger reported that witnesses said the boys targeted Merida because he is Latino. Juvenile court proceedings in Massachusetts are private, and as a result, authorities would not confirm the boys’ names due to the fact that they are minors. This story goes from bad, to worse, to even worse: At least five of the six boys had won recognition in Lynn for participation in youth sports. Four were on Pop Warner football teams that were among the best in the state last year. One team was even praised in a ceremony last year at City Hall. Even worse? After the attack, the boys were allowed to play until the Merida family and others expressed outrage. One of the boys, a soccer star from West Africa, is still playing in a private league, according to his coach, who said he believes the boy is innocent. Not surprisingly, the coach would not provide his name.
Legally speaking, what are these boys facing, and what is the worst that could happen to them? Hold on to your seat: Under Massachusetts criminal law, the five boys who are under age 14 cannot be tried as adults, but rather only as juveniles. If found guilty, in all likelihood the worst legal punishment they would face would be that they could be committed to the Department of Youth Services until they reach 18 years of age. After that, they would be free. The 14-year-old could be held at DYS until he turns age 21. I’m told The Essex County District Attorney’s office is reviewing whether to try this youth as an adult. As a Boston criminal defense lawyer, I’d be stunned if they didn’t.
Merida spent weeks in Massachusetts General Hospital, his face unrecognizable to friends and relatives, his body broken. Once strong, Merida has been transferred to Tewksbury Hospital, where he is learning to walk and feed himself. Family members say he has permanent brain damage and will never live and work on his own. Sometimes he suffers from long crying fits. His family is suddenly tens of thousands of dollars in debt. His family is trying to raise money to pay for his medical bills through Sovereign Bank.
Not only is this case a frightening, troubling reminder of the savagery that our culture is gradually succumbing to – fed by the rapid increase in violence in media of all sort and the decline of civil life in this country – it is also a call to reform the juvenile justice system in Massachusetts. I’ve blogged before about the injustices that can result from the present prohibitions on trying youthful offenders under age 14 as adults – and this case is Exhibit A.
This sickening, tragic event is right out of a horror movie – “Lord of the Flies” comes most appropriately to mind – and think about this: If any or all of these boys under 14 is found guilty, the worst punishment they could receive would be to be placed in DYS custody until they are 18. That’s it. Can you imagine trying to explain that result to the family of Damian Merida?