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.