Callous Young Killers

Court’s leniency with juvenile murderers acknowledges dangerous kids

Posted Sep 03, 2012

Danni Reese failed to come home for supper one winter evening. Her parents were worried. The twelve-year-old had gone to a nearby park in Allentown, PA, but she’d vanished. Police found witnesses who’d seen her with an older neighborhood kid whom she knew, Brian Bahr. The police eventually got a murder confession before Bahr, 17, led them to where he’d tossed Danni’s body into a creek. Bahr was convicted of raping and strangling the girl.

This was no impulsive act. Bahr had planned it. In his book bag was a 23-point list entitled, "Things to do when you get a girl in the woods." Most were sexually perverse, but the media got hold of a few items:

  1. Strip her bare.

  2. Strip yourself.…

  20. Slow beat her to death for all pain I have had in life.

He was a sick kid. In a negotiated plea that removed the death sentence, the prosecution agreed to life in prison. At least, Bahr would be gone for good. The citizens of Allentown were relieved. However, because Bahr was 17 when he raped and killed Danni, a ruling from the U. S. Supreme Court could get him a reduced sentence.

In recent years, the Court has made some key decisions about adolescent offenders that recognize what we’ve learned about the developing brain. In Roper v. Simmons in 2005, the Court struck down the death penalty for juvenile offenders; in Graham v. Florida in 2010, the Court outlawed sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes.

These decisions were influenced by science-based arguments that adolescents are more impulsive and more susceptible to negative influences than adults; mentally and emotionally, their brains are immature. They don’t fully grasp the consequences of their acts and they also have a greater capacity than adults to change. Thus, they should get a break.

The next logical step was to get rid of automatic sentences of life-without-parole for juvenile murderers. In June, the Court took this step. In a 5-4 decision, the high court struck down as cruel and unusual punishment laws that mandate a life term for murder.

In the majority decision, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “The Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” Before fact-finders impose the harshest possible penalty, the Court wants them to have an opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances.

“Although we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment [life without parole] in homicide cases,” Kagan stated, “we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”

Thus, offenders like Bahr don’t automatically get a chance at freedom. Any new hearing might find that what he did to Danni was sufficiently coldblooded to keep him behind bars.

Recently reported research in the U.K. on the seeds of psychopathy in childhood reveal that nearly 1% of children are fledgling psychopaths. These kids typically lie, cheat, manipulate and commit acts of remorseless cruelty. Appealing to their sense of fair play and conscience fails to move them. Standard punishments, such as removing privileges or imposing brief isolation, have no impact.

Unlike most children who display anti-social behavior, budding psychopaths are not primarily products of bad parenting, according to Professor Essi Viding from University College London. Her group has carried out twin studies that suggest that there’s a strong genetic component to traits she labels as “callous-unemotional” (CU).

"This does not mean these children are born anti-social,” she states, “or are destined to become anti-social. But in the same way that some of us are more susceptible to heart disease, these children are … more vulnerable to environmental influences that trigger the anti-social outcome." This includes cruelty to animals and other children, lack of remorse over causing harm, and showing little or no concern about getting caught.

Other researchers have noted other traits and behaviors, e.g., blaming others and destroying property. Those traits and behaviors that resemble adult psychopathy are, collectively, the best predictor of increased antisocial behavior, especially in boys who are egocentric, hyperactive, impulsive, callous, and suffering from attention deficits. 

Despite the Court’s steady move toward leniency for juvenile offenders, this latest decision recognizes that not all juvenile murderers deserve compassionate consideration. At least, for now, there’s room to keep truly dangerous offenders incarcerated, no matter how old they were when they committed a murder.

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