Childhood's end

Lionel Tate was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he committed when he was 12. Is this really the America we want?

Published March 10, 2001 8:06PM (EST)

Friday was a day of shame in America. A child was sentenced to life in prison.

Judges do not rage, or cry. But behind every icy line of the extraordinary statement with which Florida Judge Joel T. Lazarus upheld the laws of his state and sentenced 14-year-old Lionel Tate to life in prison without parole, there is an anger deeper than tears. Anger at the state Legislature that drafted the harsh laws making it possible for a child who was 12 at the time of his crime to be charged as an adult. Anger at the state prosecution, which refused to reduce the charge, as it was in its power to do.

And yes, anger at the unspeakable crime committed by Tate, who deliberately slammed and stomped a defenseless 6-year-old girl named Tiffany Eunick to death -- crushing her little head, smashing her tiny abdomen with such force that part of her liver was ripped off. The injuries were so horrific that the jury was not even shown every photograph of her maimed body. They didn't need to see them.

But if Lazarus rightly condemned Tate's awful crime -- and it was a crime -- he also understood and acknowledged something that somehow the Legislature, the grand jury and the state attorney's office failed to see, or didn't want to: Lionel Tate is a boy. And civilized societies do not sentence children, no matter what terrible things they have done, as adults.

So we got what we asked for. We asked for tough-on-crime legislation. We asked for mandatory minimums and inflexible charges. We asked to try juveniles as adults. We asked for more and harsher prisons. We asked, in short, to do what children do -- be allowed to lash out immediately and instinctively at wrongdoers, vent our rage and grief and fear without restraint and without guilt. We didn't want to know if it worked, if any of these measures actually reduced crime. We didn't care that studies show that the death penalty does not deter crime, or that juvenile crime has been dropping for five years in a row (and not as a result of our draconian juvenile-offender laws -- future punishment doesn't deter kids). We wanted to drink deeply of the bitter fountain of revenge. Pure, naked retribution, Old Testament-style.

Anything less, thundered the harsh prophets who are now running this country, would be "coddling." Anything less would represent moral collapse, the triumph of the degenerate, morally relativist values of the left. If the wrongdoers are kids, it makes no difference -- children must have a perfectly developed, fully adult sense of right and wrong. And if they don't, it's because of permissive parenting. That's why President Bush denounced Charles Andrew Williams, the 15-year-old who killed two classmates at Santana High School, as a "coward" and said the best way to stop such tragedies was to "teach children the difference between right and wrong." That is the language of a man whose pose of moral absolutism prevents him from understanding that childhood, with its infinite complexities and sadnesses, is a universe that can't always be described with words like "coward" and "right and wrong."

Bush used the same rhetoric to describe a horribly screwed-up teenager that presidents customarily reserve for terrorists. It's as if he was afraid that if he acknowledged that childhood might be a mitigating factor, it would open a Pandora's box of other bleeding-heart excuses. Which of course, it would. And in the age of retribution, better that childhood die than that a guilty person not suffer the full, satisfying measure of our wrath.

Which is to say: Our own need to be children is forcing us to deny the childhood of realchildren. Did someone say "moral decline"?

So this is what we get, this is our brave new moral world: A chubby-faced, shambling 14-year-old boy, described by his own lawyer as having the mental age of 8, being led away in leg irons to a life sentence in an adult prison. Judge Lazarus' words were directed to the state prosecutors who insisted on trying Tate as an adult, but they apply just as well to all of us: "They got what they wanted; now they have to take responsibility for their actions in seeking it in the first place."

Ah, but it'll all be OK, won't it? This was all planned, kind of, from the beginning. The 14-year-old-in-chains scene is just a brief Taliban moment, embarrassing or gratifying depending on your political persuasion -- a mere symbolic pit stop at which we pretend to stone, burn and draw and quarter the sinner, thus gratifying the all-American imams in our midst, then let him off. At the last moment Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will step in like a fairy godmother, wave his magic wand just like he did during the election and -- poof! -- the life sentence will vanish!

That certainly seems to be the scenario that both the defense and the prosecution want to see happen. And it seems that Jeb Bush, to his credit, is prepared to carry out his role: He was quoted as saying that he believed that Tate should be in a juvenile facility, to achieve which he would have to commute Tate's sentence.

But, as Judge Lazarus pointed out in the most blistering part of his remarks, this scenario makes the entire trial a farce, a travesty. Blasting prosecutor Ken Padowitz for talking about asking Gov. Bush for a reduction in the sentence, Lazarus said, "[This] not only casts the prosecutor in a light totally inconsistent with his role in the criminal justice system, but it makes the whole court process seem like a game where, if the results are unfavorable, they'll run to a higher source to seek a different result. A trial is not a test balloon, sent up to see what may happen."

In fact, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this ugly "game" came about because the state never really wanted to try Tate as an adult in the first place, but everyone involved was too afraid of being thought "soft on crime" to stop this slow-motion train wreck. (The incompetent defense attorneys, and Tate's equally blameworthy mother, share responsibility: The prosecution offered them a deal that would have sent Tate to prison for three years, followed by lengthy counseling and probation; incredibly, they rejected it.)

According to Michael Dale, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, prosecutor Ken Padowitz, who is a former student of Dale's, told him that he "did not want" Tate tried as an adult. Padowitz's boss, the state attorney, took the case to a grand jury -- in effect, passing the buck on the hot-potato political question of how to charge Tate. It was a no-win case for the state: Bring an indictment for first-degree murder, and you've got Amnesty International breathing down your neck for cruel and unusual punishment; bring a lesser indictment, and you've got problems with Florida's powerful hang-'em-high constituency. Dale speculates that the state attorney was hoping that the grand jury would return an indictment of second-degree murder, which would have allowed Tate to be tried in the juvenile justice system. But when the grand jury issued a first-degree indictment, he had to be tried as an adult.

Even then, as Lazarus pointed out, the state could have refiled a lesser charge. They did not, and the game played out to its conclusion.

Nobody pretends that the issues raised by young people who kill are easy. There's an unfathomable moral calculus that changes with every case. With some 17- or even 16-year-olds, I might close my heart. I have a 4-year-old daughter, and I feel about as little sympathy for Lionel Tate as it's possible to feel for someone whose innocence, at some ultimate level, I'm defending. (Yes, he murdered -- but if you don't presume that when children kill, they are not guilty in the same way that an adult is, you might as well just throw them all in with the grownups.) If a 12-year-old boy murdered my daughter, at first I would want to kill him. But then, sometime down a long and terrible road, I hope I wouldn't want to anymore.

That's why we have laws. I don't want to live in a society where my primal impulses, and those of every other injured person, are kowtowed to. I want a government that reflects the better angels of our nature, not the worse -- that reflects our measured judgment, after years of pain have burned into us a realization that destroying a second life won't bring the first. The sentence handed down to Lionel Tate -- even if it is merely symbolic, as I hope it is -- reflects something different, and uglier.

(Additional reporting on this story by Fiona Morgan.)

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

MORE FROM Gary Kamiya

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Jeb Bush