Waldlaw Blog

Friday, April 18, 2008

When the Past Meets the Present

I spent 5 years working in the Alameda County Public Defender's Office. For eight long months of that time, back in 1990 or so, I worked in the Oakland Juvenile Court. Working as a juvenile public defender meant days spent talking with young clients -- my youngest was 8 years old -- about how they had gotten into trouble and what they intended to do about it. It was much more social work than law -- and I got into the habit, encouraged by one of my co-workers, of asking every child I spoke with (because many of them truly were children, whether they knew it or not) what he or she wanted to be when s/he grew up, just to make sure that they didn't make it to adulthood without anyone even asking that question of them. Most of them had no answer to the question, beyond hoping they would live that long. Many of them knew far more people who were in prison than in college; many of them had seen a level of chaos and violence in their young lives far beyond anything I ever am likely to see. I found the work incredibly stressful, and was very glad to move back to adult court at the end of my short stint. However, the impression those months made on me has stayed with me for all the almost-20-years since. The case of Lawrence King has brought my months in juvenile court back to me. For those who don't recognize the name, Lawrence King is the 15-year-old boy who was murdered in Oxnard, California in February, allegedly for having asked his (male) 14-year-old killer to be his Valentine. Because the murder appears to have been prompted by intense homophobia -- because Lawrence King appears to have been murdered for daring to be "out" about his sexual orientation at the tender age of 15 -- the killing has become something of a gay rights issue. In our current political climate -- with Three Strikes setting the standard for sentencing in California -- the issue has been raised as to whether the child who murdered Lawrence King should be tried as a juvenile or as an adult. The prosecutors are looking to have the case moved to adult court, and undoubtedly will be going for a first degree murder conviction and a stiff sentence. But I remember those months that I worked in juvenile court, and the children I represented there, and look at my own 14-year-old, and wonder..... I certainly don't think that Lawrence King's killer should be absolved of responsibility for his offense. Fourteen is old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, and to be held accountable for one's actions. This young man's decision to end Lawrence King's life is unforgivable and awful, and must be addressed in a very serious manner. But can't the juvenile justice system do that, in an age-appropriate way, without withdrawing the hope of redemption at some point in adulthood? And so, I was very glad to see that a large coalition of gay rights organizations have banded together to issue a statement, recommending that Lawrence King's killer be treated as a juvenile and not an adult. They have issued a compelling statement, asking prosecutors to leave the case in juvenile court. I hope that the district attorney listens, and takes the opportunity to try to prevent the loss of a second young life in this whole mess....


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