Don't try this at home

Should kids be held responsible when their reenactment of TV shows ends in catastrophe?

Published February 2, 2001 8:47PM (EST)

In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a 13-year-old boy is convicted of murdering a 6-year-old; he says he was imitating his heroes in professional wrestling when he body-slammed and kicked the 48-pound girl to death. The next day in Torrington, Conn., a 14-year-old reportedly poured gasoline on his friend and set him on fire. The kids say they were re-creating a stunt featured on a popular MTV show called "Jackass." The unscathed teen, who inflicted second- and third-degree burns on his friend's hands and legs, was arrested and charged with reckless endangerment.

The Florida boy's attorney believes the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) is responsible for the girl's death; the father of burn victim Jason Lind blames MTV. And while Lind was in the hospital, his dad appealed for support to Washington's most vociferous critic of Hollywood, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and the war on violence in the media was declared once again.

"There are some things that are so potentially dangerous and inciting, particularly to vulnerable children, that they simply should not be put on TV, and this is clearly one that crosses that line," said Lieberman in a press release that placed blame on purveyors of rough-and-tumble programming.

But, under the current justice system, the chain of finger-pointing ultimately ends with the children who commit the crimes. For the moment, there is no law against portrayals of grisly violence, only laws against those who attempt to reenact them. They are the ones arrested, interrogated, read their Miranda rights; they are the ones who frequently decide whether to waive their rights while they are alone without a parent or attorney, they are the ones charged, cross-examined and ultimately found guilty, or "delinquent" as it is said in juvenile parlance. And they are ones who do the time for the crime.

"If there is a product on the market that results in the death of even a couple of children, what happens?" asks Dr. Howard Spivak, chief of general pediatric and adolescent medicine at the New England Medical Center in Boston and chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics task force on violence. "It gets taken off the market; there's major investigation.

"Here we have a product [violent programming] that has at the very least a clear relationship with the death of half a dozen children in this country and what has happened? Nothing. What's happened is that we have blamed what one might argue is a victim of the product. It's very, very bizarre. It doesn't make any sense to me."

The intention of a person committing an act -- even an act of violence -- is crucial in determining whether the act is a crime. But there's growing concern among child psychologists and attorneys that many adolescents aren't competent to stand trial for the crimes with which they are charged. Kids are often ill-equipped developmentally to understand the consequences of their actions. For 13- and 14-year-olds, death doesn't always seem to have permanence -- a stunt on TV looks easy to replicate at home without consequences; and role models are often the biggest, the strongest; the ones who can snap another person's neck in two seconds, the ones who inspire the favorite WWF action dolls.

Surprisingly, in many cases where a child's developmental status is key to understanding his actions, public defenders don't have the resources to order a legal test to determine the accused child's competency. In the past, juveniles were presumed incompetent at the age of 12 or younger. The practice now is that anyone who is arrested is presumed competent until someone challenges his or her competency. This is a crucial component in many children's cases, say juvenile advocates, since once the issue of competency is raised, a trial or "adjudicatory hearing" is postponed if the accused is found to be incompetent.

"I'm sure there are people who believe that kids are so savvy about courts or crime, they know what's going on," says Marie Osborne, the chief of the juvenile division at the Miami public defender's office. "My position is that children have cognitive limitations and I don't believe they see options and ramifications the way adults do. I don't think they understand that what's happening in this [court] process over a couple of days affects the rest of their lives. I don't think kids are future-oriented; most don't think past their next birthday or Christmas."

Lionel Tate seemed to embody the child that Osborne describes, a kid oblivious to the gravity of his situation. During his trial for first-degree murder, Tate, with his chubby cheeks and closely cropped hair, often sat in the defendant's chair drawing pictures. He was just 12 when he lifted Tiffany Eunick up and slammed her onto a table, lacerating her liver, fracturing her skull and breaking her bones. Tate's case was determined to be heinous enough to be tried in adult court, where his first-degree murder charge was predicated on the felony murder doctrine -- which says you can be held responsible for murder if it happens during the course of a felony. The felony in Tate's case was aggravated child abuse.

Juvenile court was created as an alternative to adult court for children who were believed at the time -- 100 years ago -- not to have the capacity to fully understand their actions. Osborne and others recall the good old days of the juvenile justice system, as recently as a decade ago, when juvenile court still served this purpose. It was a given at that time that kids are different developmentally and that, unlike adults, they don't always understand that if the gun goes off, someone can, and will, die; that there is no taking back an action no matter how much you wish it didn't happen.

With the increase of juvenile crime in the early '90s came a tendency to attribute adult motivation and sophistication to children and more kids were tried as adults. "Do the crime. Do the time. Victims don't care how young you are," went the slogans.

"It used to be that you would look at the kid, his history, background and think about how to teach the kid to be responsible and find the level of intervention to accomplish that," says Robert Schwartz, coauthor of "Youth on Trial: A Developmental Perspective on Juvenile Justice" and executive director of the Juvenile Law Center. "Now you have to remind the get-tough-on-crime [contingent] that adolescent development makes a difference."

As the public has demanded more accountability from kids accused of heinous crimes, prosecutors have been under pressure to seek harsher sentences for the youngest offenders. And the trend continues even though the number of juveniles arrested for violent crimes dropped 23 percent between 1995 and 1999, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

"I think the system needs a huge overhaul in terms of how we treat juveniles and how we determine their competence," says Dr. Carl Bell, a professor of psychiatry and public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It's a big problem which, unfortunately, the public doesn't understand because the public sees a 13-year-old as being able to tell the difference between right and wrong.

"The fact is that a kid can tell the difference between right and wrong but not have the long-term appreciation for the effect of their actions. That's incompetency."

An evaluation of a child's developmental maturity is key to understanding his or her competency, but very often such an evaluation is not part of the legal process. For instance, studies consistently show that kids under 15 don't always understand their Miranda rights. They will know the meaning of the words, will have heard them on TV, but not be "competent" to understand what they mean to them in their current circumstances. In the same way, children and adolescents may know that the things they see on TV are violent, but not be able to understand their catastrophic consequences in real life.

"A young child may believe you can smash people over the back with a chair and it doesn't matter," says Jeff Haugaard, associate professor of human development at Cornell University. "It's the extent that we show things that are unreal on TV that we are likely to be influencing these children.

"It's not that we're creating evil children or that watching these programs is making them bad, it's just that we are creating this false sense that you can do these things and it can work out ... My sense is that we are now holding kids responsible for having an adult-like knowledge about the world."

MTV broadcasts a disclaimer during "Jackass" that warns viewers not to replicate anything they see on the show at home. During each episode of the show, which runs on Sundays at 9 p.m., a statement reads, "The following show features stunts performed by professionals and/or total idiots under strict control and supervision. MTV and the producers insist that neither you or anyone else attempt to recreate or perform anything you have seen on this show."

"Jackass" prides itself on being stupid, featuring "Candid Camera"-style sketches and stunts like the "human barbecue" trick, which Lind and his friend supposedly imitated.

To adults, there is no gray area: Set yourself on fire, and chances are you'll get burned; pick up a little girl and smash her down on the table, and she will sustain serious injures. But adults also know what goes on behind the scenes; they are familiar with acting and artifice. Kids watch WWF thugs get stomped on by 300-pound "enemies" and rise again, appearing the following week fresh and ready for more happy mayhem. (Another important lesson: These guys aren't just indestructible -- they are governor material).

Most American children have watched TV from toddlerhood, learning to count, to read, to sing and say "Thank you" from Mister Rogers and the Muppets. At what point are they supposed to conclude that the medium is no longer something to learn from, that the things they see are not things they should try at home?

To the WWF, Tate's defense that he was imitating TV was as phony as the choreographed stunts their wrestlers perform for their fans. "The WWF has stated consistently that the suggestion that wrestling had anything to do with Lionel Tate's murderous acts was a contrived hoax," said Jerry McDevitt, the WWF's litigation counsel in a press release. "The jury easily and quickly repudiated the defense counsel's claim that pro wrestling was somehow to blame for this intentional homicide, and individual jurors have reiterated this in public comments.

"The evidence proved, and the jury found, that this was death caused not by mimicking wrestling moves, but rather by a deliberate, prolonged and savage beating."

Children killing other children is still a rare occurrence. On the other hand, mimicking the media is not. "How odd do you have to be as a 13- or 14-year-old to want to imitate bizarre things you see in the media?" asks Dr. Katherine Kaufer Christoffel, professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at Northwestern University Medical School. "I would say they all want to do it.

"They are still children, they have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality; they lose track of consequences, they don't understand death. So when people put forward these images in the world, they have to recognize that's how kids are going to see it."

For James Backstrom, county attorney for Dakota County, Minn., deciding which cases to refer to adult court is always a tough decision. He looks at a variety of factors in determining which adolescents are not fit for juvenile court. He doesn't have as much of a problem with the older ones who commit heinous crimes. But when it dips down to kids Tate's age -- he was 12 when the murder occurred -- Backstrom finds it more troubling.

"I don't personally believe that the prosecution of 10-, 11-, 13-year-olds as adults is an appropriate response in the vast majority of cases, regardless of the level of crime," says Backstrom, who is also co-chair of the National District Attorney Association's Juvenile Justice Committee. "We are dealing with kids who, in essence, do not understand the full nature of the extent of their actions. There needs to be some recognition of that through the criminal justice system while at the same time we need to ensure adequate accountability."

But Backstrom does not believe that the kids should evade responsibility completely. He's a big advocate of "blended sentencing" laws, which combine elements of the juvenile and adult courts. Ironically, the plea bargain Tate turned down was a blended sentence. In exchange for pleading guilty to second-degree murder, he would have had to only serve three years in juvenile detention, one year of house arrest and eight years' probation. (Shortly after Tate's conviction, the prosecutor in the case said he would seek a lenient sentence for the boy, who faces life imprisonment).

Obviously, not all kids will imitate TV and kill in the process. The majority of children can watch hours of violent programming and remain unfazed. Child-development psychologists say that only a small percentage of children are vulnerable, and that many factors influence a child's view of the world -- their peers, their teachers, their parents. In fact, the recent surgeon general's report on youth violence could not conclude whether violent programming alters a juvenile's behavior in the long term because of all the influences a kid is exposed to while growing up.

"I think it's self-evident that TV influences us and I think it influences children, too," Osborne says. "I don't think that means that I want someone held culpable or liable. But there needs to be an acknowledgement that children 'role-model' their culture and if we care about their actions, we should pay attention to culture. I had a Russian roulette case -- it was clearly consent and somebody blew their head off. The what-ifs of the world never penetrate a kid's brain." And until they are old enough to understand the potential fallout of their actions, says Osborne, their competence should be assessed before a judgment is rendered.

By Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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