Ethics Quiz: Punishing The 12-Year-Old Killer


Texas Monthly this month has a troubling profile of Edwin Debrow, who is 37 years old,  has been behind bars since he was 12, and may have to stay there until he is 52. On September 21, 1991, Debrow shot a San Antonio school teacher named Curtis Edwards in the back of the head. Edwards’ body was found sprawled across the front seat of a taxi that he drove part-time at night. Edwin, police determined, had shot Edwards during an attempted robbery. Above is the photo of the 12-year-old in custody.

Texas law, you will not be surprised to learn, allows very harsh punishment for  juvenile offenders.Other states will sometimes try 12-year-olds as adults. Last year’s documentary “Beware the Slenderman” tells the strange story of Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls who attempted to stab another 12-year old girl to death in 2014. Under Wisconsin law, Weier and Geyser will be tried as adults for attempted first-degree intentional homicide, and if convicted, they could be sentenced to up to 65 years in state prison.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is this:

Is it ethical for society to punish children with such long prison sentences, no matter how serious the crime?

Debow asks, in the Texas Monthly story, “Why can’t people understand I’m not that twelve-year-old boy anymore? Why can’t I be given a second chance?” It’s a fair question but not an easy one. From the article:

Some people who know Edwin believe he was never given much of a first chance. From the day he was born, in 1979, his life was marked by poverty and neglect, by drugs and fights, by knifings and gunfire. He and his six brothers and sisters were raised by their mother, Seletha, in shabby apartments and one-bedroom rent houses on San Antonio’s impoverished East Side. … Everyone slept on mattresses on the floor. When Seletha couldn’t cover her bills with her monthly $220 welfare check, the family would go for days without electricity and water. They ran a hose from a neighbor’s house to take showers. At least once they had to move into a homeless shelter…

Edwin became disruptive in school, got into fights, and snarled at teachers who tried to discipline him. …But he always came to school dirty and hungry. One teacher, Jacqueline Valentine, told her colleagues that she wished Edwin could come live with her. He had such potential, she said. She was worried that if nothing was done, he would turn out to be just another lost kid.It happened sooner than anyone could have imagined. When Edwin was ten years old, he joined the Altadena Blocc Crips. He wore the Crips blue bandanna, flashed gang signs, and spoke gang slang. He began “pumping yay” (selling bags of crack) on a street corner called Jolly Time, which got its name because it was frequented by drug dealers. The other Crips called Edwin “the Baby Gangsta,” and he loved it. “I felt protected,” he said. “And when you’re a little kid running the streets, protection means a lot.”

He stole cars and went joyriding. Even though he hadn’t reached puberty, he gave hookers free dope in return for oral sex. He routinely packed guns. He committed small-time robberies, and he shot at a drug customer who ran off without paying. He went along with some other Crips on a drive-by, opening fire on a house where rival gang members lived. One evening, when he was walking down a sidewalk with some Crips, one of them shot a passerby in the face. Edwin and his pals then calmly strolled over to a Jack in the Box to eat hamburgers. “It was like I had no conscience,” he said. “I didn’t value human life. At that time, I thought it was better for some people to be dead.”

…Prosecutors decided that Edwin provided the perfect opportunity to send a clear message to San Antonio residents about bringing juvenile criminals to justice. When the trial began, in February 1992, prosecutors warned the jury not to be fooled by Edwin’s age and boyish face. Yes, said Gammon Guinn, one of the prosecutors, Edwin was a child. But, Guinn continued, he was “a child that kills.” Guinn said that Edwin had strutted around “like a rooster” at the hospital, bragging about what he had done. Guinn then asked the jury, “Should we cut off society’s nose to spite our face and send him back out there? Do we let him do it again?”

That’s always the argument, isn’t it? The other side of the argument is this: Are you kidding me? The boy was 12 years old! Do you remember what you were like at twelve? Granted, he’s a damaged kid, but he’s still just a child. He couldn’t possibly have understood the full implications of his actions. A 12-year-old  cannot justly be held to adult standards, and because of his age, a long prison sentence is harsher than it would be for an adult.

If this isn’t cruel and unusual punishment, what is?

In his plea for mercy in the “thrill murder” trial of teenagers of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in 1925, Clarence Darrow began by reminding the judge that England  once hanged children as young as seven years of age. Then he said,

“Your Honor, if in this court a boy of eighteen and a boy of nineteen should be hanged on a plea of guilty, in violation of every precedent of the past, in violation of the policy of the law to take care of the young, in violation of all the progress that has been made and of the humanity that has been shown in the care of the young; in violation of the law that places boys in reformatories instead of prisons, if Your Honor in violation of all that and in the face of all the past should stand here in Chicago alone to hang a boy on a plea of guilty, then we are turning our’ faces backward, toward the barbarism which once possessed the world. If Your Honor can hang a boy at eighteen, some other judge can hang him at seventeen, or sixteen, or fourteen. Someday, if there is any such thing as progress in the world, if there is any spirit of humanity that is working in the hearts of men, someday men would look back upon this as a barbarous age which deliberately set itself in the way of progress, humanity, and sympathy, and committed an unforgivable act.”

Leopold and Loeb, 18 and 19 respectively, were hardly children. Darrow, the iconic progressive, didn’t believe that it was just to punish most criminals at all, and he would have pointed to the life of Edwin Debow as prime evidence supporting his belief.  He would have certainly been as horrified to find out that 90 years after his famous closing argument that saved the lives of his young clients who killed a boy just for the fun of it, American jurisdictions are still sending children to prison for 50 years or more. It’s better than hanging seven year-olds, but not much. Darrow closed by saying in part,

“If I should succeed in saving these boys’ lives and do nothing for the progress of the law, I should feel sad, indeed. If I can succeed, my greatest reward and my greatest hope will be that I have done something for the tens of thousands of other boys, or the countless unfortunates who must tread the same road in blind childhood that these poor boys have trod, that I have done something to help human understanding, to temper justice with mercy, to overcome hate with love.”

I think Darrow would feel that the sentence given to Edwin Debow and the ones facing Weier and Geyser prove that he failed in his objective.

My answer to the quiz: For such  sentences to be inflicted on children is cruel, barbaric, and wrong.


Pointer: Fred


80 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Punishing The 12-Year-Old Killer

  1. To answer the original question, I believe sentences like that are inhumane. At the same time though, I have to admit that I don’t know what the answer is. Clearly, a crime of that nature has to be punished in some fashion but I can’t believe that giving a 12 year old what to all intents and purposes is a life sentence is the right way to do it. Would the outcome have been different if Edwin had access to the financial resources that Ryan LeVin had?

    I am not a lawyer, but I also have question about mens rea. How can a 12 year old have the guilty mind to commit murder? I also don’t see it mentioned here that Frank Hardeman, a 32 year old who had murdered an elderly man and was out on parole, instigated the crime and got only 30 years. Why is an adult who took an armed 12 year old boy to help him commit a robbery not the one who is having the finger pointed at him?

    • How can a 12 year old have the guilty mind to commit murder?

      The jury was presented with evidence that answers the question.

  2. From what I read in the article, Edwin was tried as an adult (which seems wrong to me but I don’t have enough background in criminal law or procedure to write anything coherent about that issue) in juvenile court, and sentenced to serve up to 65 years in prison. This 12 year old clearly never had a chance, especially given his background and absent parents. It does seem cruel try a 12 year old as an adult, though.

    I don’t know the specifics about this case but the article suggests that the original sentence could have been reduced to time served when Edwin turned 21 years old, but his conduct in prison, either in the state schools or state prison, was less than exemplary. He joined gangs while incarcerated, got into fights with inmates and guards, used drugs, and generally didn’t reform until it was too late. That, coupled with the horrific, senseless crime against an innocent man leaving a 6 year old fatherless, seem to have sealed his fate.

    I thought I was going to be reading a sob story about miscarriage of justice because of an incompetent lawyer, but it seems his lawyer did everything he could under the law to prevent such a strict sentence. That was a nice twist.

    I do get that 12 years olds are not fully developed and are not mature enough to think through what they are doing, governed mostly by impulse rather than reason. We have a 12 year old son and I can attest to the fact that not all brain functions are firing at the same time. When I ask why he did something dumb (for example, pushing his mama’s buttons until she gets mad, or pushing my buttons until I blow a proverbial gasket and bang my head against the wall), his common response is, “I don’t know”.


  3. I don’t think a 12-year-old should get almost-life, but neither do I agree with the “juve-y” sentences that let murderers and other juvenile felons out of jail when they hit 18.

    Here’s a question: How would you feel if the photo of the 12-year-old showed a kid who was tall for his age rather than the latter, who was snarling at the photographer instead of trying to hide, who had gangsta hair and tatoos? He’d still be 12, wouldn’t he? Appearance is everything, and that photo alone creates sympathy, whether deserved or undeserved. Texas may have been too tough on him, but Darrow and Marshall notwithstanding, age alone does not a clear evaluation make. (And I am the mother of a millennial son.) Neither the photo or the article makes the case completely either way.

  4. We had a case here in Kobe, where a 14-year-old killed two children, you may be familiar with it. For 2-3 years before the murders there were a number of injured cats found in the neighborhood; as the months went by they started to find them dead and mutilated. Then someone started to hit children with a hammer and run off. One girl was hit several times and passed away later from her injuries. The incident that culminated in an arrest was the kidnapping and beheading of an 11-year-old special needs student. His head was left in front of the gate of the school he attended.

    Shounen A (Juvenile A) was one of the youngest offenders ever prosecuted here. He was clearly mentally ill. He was remanded to a psychiatric facility and was released under a new identity in 2005. There was quite the outcry when he was released. There was no explanation offered to assuage the public’s fear concerning his release. It’s been 12 years, the latest information is that he has a productive job and is living quietly in a rural area.

    While I agree that life sentencing for 12-year-olds is cruel, my concern is, can people who are as ill as Shounen A really be cured? Are juvelines more
    likely be cured than those in their 20’s?

  5. Incarceration serves at least two purposes that I can think of. First, it is unpleasant, which is intended to deter people from committing crimes. Second, it keeps people away from those they would harm with their actions. If that’s all a prison is supposed to be, then it has served its role here, and we can all go home.

    That’s not the point, though, is it? A prison has a third purpose, ideally, which fulfills does very poorly. A prison is, in theory, a place where people will change into people who no longer commit crimes.

    The reason prisons often fail at this purpose is the same reason that the environment the child grew up in greatly increased his chances of ending up in prison (or dead): prisons and societies are by and large built on rules, but changing a person requires a chaotic touch: the mindset of empathy.

    Empathy is not to be confused with compassion. Compassion implies good intentions, while empathy is not inherently good. Empathy is the skill of interacting with complex and subtle systems (like people), entering their paradigms and coaxing them to behave differently from their normal inclinations, and even to change their paradigms. It is the skill of individualizing interactions. The problem is that is a bit difficult to systematize effectively with rules because different empathy users have different styles, each subject will respond differently, and changing an unusual person may require unusual methods. It’s not that hard, however. More accurately, it is difficult to systematize with rules in a way that it retains its effectiveness while avoiding legal liability for methods that people don’t like or outcomes that aren’t guaranteed (though ironically enough, empathy is more effective than rule-based behavior modification). Empathy is a chaotically aligned mindset, meaning that a standard approach won’t always be effective, and an effective approach won’t always be standard.

    The reason I bring up empathy is that it is the key mindset necessary to change people deliberately. It is necessary in a child’s environment, and it is necessary in a prison. Both are places where people need special attention in order to grow into better people.

    I think you are all overcomplicating this matter with talk of developing brains and awareness of the consequences of one’s actions. People have faults that they are responsible for fixing. However, they are not responsible for having the faults in the first place. Nobody chooses to be flawed. Blaming people for their faults isn’t the point. The point is to accurately identify and fix their faults.

    And so, a prison must be a place where people are locked away and given the empathy and other environmental factors they need to become people who will no longer harm society. (That’s my criterion for forgiveness: that you are no longer a person who will intentionally transgress.) Then the people are released. I posit that determining when a person is no longer a threat to society is not actually that hard if their prison and post-prison environments are constructive and didactic. That’s the part many people don’t want to spend so much money on. Or, more importantly, thought and effort.

  6. He couldn’t possibly have understood the full implications of his actions. A 12-year-old cannot justly be held to adult standards, and because of his age, a long prison sentence is harsher than it would be for an adult.

    The jury was presented with evidence to the contrary, and disagreed.

    • I still say (and said elsewhere here) that if the kid didn’t look so heartbreaking we would feel so heartbroken. What if he was tall for his age instead of short, or if he was sneering at the camera instead of hiding, and had bad hair and tattoos? He’d still be twelve, but we’d think differently about him.

      All this to say that Jack’s post, the photo, and article excerpts didn’t provide enough information for us to be either heartbroken or pleased that he got the sentence that he did.

      I agree that long sentences for minors are ipso facto problematic, but I also feel that gross generalizations made solely on the basis of age do not help decision-making in individual cases. Just because you’re twelve doesn’t make you innocent or incapable of creating mayhem, for profit or for fun.

      And I say all this as the mother of a millennial son — of whom I am very proud.

  7. There are many reasons a human could kill another:
    1 – believing their own life is in danger and protecting themselves
    2 – protecting another who they believe will be significantly hurt/killed
    3 – a true accident
    4 – they have an actual mental disease as per the DSM (at random – schizophrenia) that actually impacts their ability to understand reality, ethical actions, or permanency
    5 – they have a mental incapability, such as a sociopath, that leaves them uncaring of whether their action is ethical or not; they simply don’t care. A subset may be the “corporate decision” – to release a product that will knowingly hurt/kill a certain number of people, however, the economics of the ensuing lawsuits is considered less hurtful to the company than releasing the product. These people are “sorry”, generally because they were caught.
    6 – they have a mental incapability due to an incompletely formed brain, lack of intellect, lack of compassion, lack of understanding of the permanency of violent actions. Perhaps this can be corrected with therapy and surroundings. Perhaps it cannot. Only time, and the serious investment of time by one or more caring adults can even begin to determine if this person is, or is not, a potential threat to themselves and the people around them.

    I think that most people can agree that items 1 – 5 have relatively simple ethical issues associated with them. If a child who has killed can fit into one of those categories, it is not as much an ethical conundrum, but more of a “how do we deal with this child in the future”?

    It is the child who does not simply fit into any of those categories; the child #6. There’s no simple and obvious reason why the child killed. There is no simple, inexpensive way to fix the situation. The general default is to place the child into category #5; there’s something wrong with him/her, but since they’re a sociopath, we just can’t see it. The courts and judicial system don’t have the time, resources or desire to try to invest in the child to understand the actual “why” and whether it can be corrected or overcome with therapy. Therefore, these children are simply discarded. Rather than invest the effort to see if they can be a rehabilitated teenager and adult, they take their money, time and effort and throw it into children that are not as obviously and severely damaged. Certainly, our legal and prison system has leaned toward the insurance agency model — don’t throw money at a potential “bad risk”.

  8. The sentences are wrong. It doesn’t matter what the child looks like (tall, short, snarling, tattooed, clean cut, or smiling), what matters is the child’s age. The adolescent brain is not a fully formed organ. Impulse control, judgement, reasoning, etc. are all just starting to form during the teenage years. Some children are hampered even more socially and developmentally by their environment and in some cases, disabilities (on of the Slenderman defendants has schizophrenic tendencies and her father is a diagnosed schizophrenic).

    That’s not to say they shouldn’t be punishment—they absolutely should—but children should not be tried as adults and they should not be given life sentences.

    Food for thought:

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