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A(nother) Beautiful Child is Killed: What Should We Do With Her Murderers?

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Forgive this departure from the presidential campaign.

On my day job, I supervise a student who catalogues every Chicago homicide that involves a young perpetrator or victim. There are many of them. He recently compiled the story of Nequiel Fowler. Only ten years old, Nequiel, died at our own university hospital after she was shot in a gang cross-fire while caring for her little sister. As the Chicago Tribune reported it:

Nequiel Fowler was so excited to start 4th grade on Tuesday that she already had her backpack organized, a new outfit picked out and her hair braided with white beads.

But first she enjoyed the last afternoon of summer, playing down the block from her home with friends and the blind little sister who was her constant companion. When Nequiel bent down to tie her sister Valerie's shoe, shots rang out and "Nee-Nee" slumped to the ground with a stray bullet in her left side.

Valerie, unaware of what had happened, clung bewildered to a house gate, reaching for her sister and calling her name, neighbors said.

"I'm not glad my daughter is blind, but I'm glad she didn't see it," Nequiel's mother, Linda Williams, said of the fatal Labor Day shooting. "Valerie asked me, 'Is Nee-Nee dead? Is she gone?' "

Four young men have been arrested for this particularly stupid crime. They are apparently members of the Latin Dragons. Minutes before the shooting, her 20-year-old alleged assailant had been confronted by a gang superior to give some payback in a feud with another gang.

What should we do with them? Should we kill them?

Our society has a strangely bifurcated attitude on these questions. When atrocities happen, we seek consolation by brutalizing the vicious man-children who typically commit these crimes. At the same time, we puff offenders up into media celebrities and thus create scary incentives for sick attention-seekers. Books such as Silence of the Lambs present serial killers as larger-than-life figures who outwit the authorities. Some of my graduate students do direct practice work in Illinois and Indiana prisons, including for the often-shattered families of inmates scheduled to die. Most real-life killers are pathetic, smaller-than-life figures. If we treated them as shameful pariahs whom we never mention, we might have fewer of them.

Public confidence in the death penalty has been shaken by the spate of cases in which DNA evidence exonerated inmates on death row. Emphasizing these cases is a brilliant political strategy. Visibly botched capital cases accomplish more than any ACLU activist could in changing public views. The resulting trend worries conservative law professor James Q. Wilson, who says liberals should stop harping on "the tiny chance that someday somebody innocent will be killed."

I wish I had Wilson's confidence, but ironically he makes the right point. The most appalling thing about execution is not the rare error. It is the much more frequent killing of guilty people who don't deserve to die. Many courts operate with apparent disregard for what turns people into killers. It's depressing that we need the Supreme Court to tell us: Don't execute teenagers. Don't execute brain-injured people. Don't execute people when the proper procedures have been followed but the guy might be innocent.

Consider Amnesty International's account of Johnny Garrett. A mentally impaired psychotic, Garrett was raped at age 14 by his stepfather, who also hired the boy out for sex with another man. At 17, Garrett butchered a 76-year-old nun. One examining clinician reported that Garrett's case was "one of the most virulent histories of abuse and neglect...I have encountered in over 28 years of practice." Over the objections of the Pope and others, Garrett was executed. The question "why?" jumps from the page.

I understand the anger about crime that many people feel. I have felt it myself. I have been robbed or beaten four times in my life. I do not recommend the experience.

When I was 17, I was beaten in a New York subway by some youths who kicked me in the face, then grabbed me by the hair and began banging my head against the concrete floor--all to wrest away a $60 watch that was a present from my high school sweetheart. A burly Irish cop ambled in 30 minutes later. He got down on all fours and assembled the pieces of my glasses. "You look like a mess," he said as he took a wet towel and helped me wash the blood off my face and head. Transit cops drove me around the neighborhood in a vein attempt to find my assailants. Inexplicably, they then dropped me off at the George Washington Bridge bus terminal, and I went home.

Later that day, I sat stunned in the bathtub, the shower running full blast as I inventoried my fat lip and the bruises. I discovered scratch marks on my legs where people had tried to pry their hands into my pockets. I went to my pediatrician's office a week later complaining of headaches. He roughly examined my scalp for undetected bruises. Finding none, he reported: "It's just nerves," and he sent me packing.

Two years later, something infinitely worse happened. My gentle disabled cousin, my mother's childhood playmate, was beaten to death in his apartment when he surprised two teenage burglars whom he knew.

No doubt influenced by these experiences, I'm not always as concerned about observing every criminal justice system nicety as many of my progressive friends are. I can't say these experiences did wonders for my social attitudes, either. I picked up some pungent attitudes regarding race and other matters I needed time to leave behind.

It's been a quarter century since anyone has laid a hostile hand on me. (I hope that doesn't mean I'm due.) My research brings be into contact with some causes and consequences of urban crime. I've seen nothing in these intervening years to suggest that we accomplish much by brutalizing the small and troubled people who commit atrocities. Killing these four gang bangers who murdered Nequiel Fowler does nothing to honor or memorialize this beautiful child. If experience is any guide, it will not help to heal her family. If anything, it does the opposite, making these killers rather than their victim the center of public attention and, inevitably, prolonged legal proceedings.

Capital punishment is also surprisingly costly. Studies indicate that it costs an extra $2 million to execute a murderer, over and above the costs of imposing a lesser punishment. The costs go much higher in more-fastidious jurisdictions, but the point is clear. What makes you feel safer? Executing some murderer who would never otherwise be released, or sending 500 kids to Head Start. If you prefer, we could use that same $2 million to keep 30 violent offenders in jail for a year, or we could buy 40 officer-years of basic police protection in many jurisdictions.

When one considers the troubled lives that lay behind brutal crimes, there is something gratuitously cruel and pointless about the whole thing. Acknowledging these mitigating factors does not absolve people of responsibility for brutal crimes. It does require us to acknowledge the fragile humanity of these offenders. Johnny Garrett deserved this, even if safety demands that he be locked up forever. So do several dozen others now awaiting execution for juvenile crimes.

And I think we need to ask discomfiting questions about our own mindset when we impose harsh punishment. You don't have to be an evolutionary biologist to see that retaliation is sometimes necessary and right. But you don't have to be a psychologist to see that our human drive for vengeance releases powerful toxins that can damage our lives.

A day or two after I experienced that subway beating, I was walking to school. My girlfriend was there waiting, holding a new watch. She had gone to some trouble to procure it. I can't say that the 17-year-old HAP appreciated that effort as much as I should have. I was too wrapped up in embracing and savoring my anger and victimization.

Whoever wins this election, I suspect our country's official machinery of death is on the way out. Every year, decent people across the political spectrum turn away from capital punishment. Politics being what it is, a Republican may have to make the first radical move, as happened here in Illinois. I will celebrate that day.

We don't make ourselves safer or saner by strapping some stupid gang tough or a maniac onto a gurney to end human life. The proper response to depravity is to remember victims such as Nequiel Fowler, to comfort the bereaved, and to embrace life. We see enough sadness and violence these days.