Locking up our children

It’s the droning boring recitation of testimony in court cases that is the perfect accompaniment for me to oil paint by. Music is too evocative; so is the news. I half listen to Court TV while I paint. My mind gets absorbed in cadmium red and cerulean blue, while springtime flowers form on the canvas. It’s fun to paint and innocent too — a pastime far away from the permutations of the American judicial system, and yet I choose the goings on in American courts to provide background noise.
I suppose if I did not combine these two dissonant activities, I would never have found out about Aaron Schmidt, a 15-year-old boy on trial for murdering Alana Calahan, his 14-year-old neighbor and only friend.
By the time Schmidt was 14, he had already had a terrible life. He had endured emotional, physical and sexual abuse. He came into this world the product of an incestuous rape. He was abandoned by his family. However, there was one ray of hope. Out of the goodness of their hearts, his neighbors, the Calahan’s, took him into their family and loved him as one of their own. He dined at their house, vacationed with them and most importantly, had his first taste of nurturing and belonging inside their family.
Then he did something to cause the Calahan’s to banish him from their home. Whatever happened did not come out at trial.
Did he murder Alana out of vengeance or retaliation? No one knows for sure. She was killed with a gunshot to the back of her head while she was importing photos on Facebook. He dragged her body into the woods to cover up the crime. Then he lied, changed his story over and over and finally confessed. Alana was popular, smart and had a rich life of possibilities ahead of her. The crime was senseless; tragic beyond comprehension.
Aaron was charged. A public defender was appointed and a jury trial ensued. His possible punishment for a crime he committed at 14 was life without the possibility of parole. I put the paints away.
Aaron looked terrified during the trial. Much was later assumed by his apparent lack of remorse. Why had he not apologized? Where were the tears the prosecutors asked?
The public defender didn’t bother to defend him. She presented no defense. Maybe she was overworked or could not dispute the mountain of evidence. Also, she lost almost every pre-trial and trial motion. She asked very few questions of the prosecution’s witnesses and she never even called one defense witnesses herself.
Aaron was convicted of the most serious charge. In an interview, one of the jurors said that no one on the jury was comfortable with the outcome. If they had only presented one witness that could testify about his troubled past as a mitigating circumstance, they might have been able to be more lenient.
Then the sentencing hearing was televised.
Alana’s parents, siblings and friends spoke, one after the other, all calling for life without parole. All in pain so severe there are no words to describe it.
I was so hopeful when the judge began to speak. He sounded wise and compassionate; like King Solomon in the Bible. “This boy never had a chance in life. He was robbed of the possibility of reaching his full potential. All of his life he had no control over his circumstances. His early life was a travesty of abuse and neglect, society failed him. Maybe this horrible act was his twisted, misguided way of taking some control.”
Then, to my surprise, the judge summarily sentenced the boy to life in prison without parole. He said it was not a “punishment,” just a decision which will prevent another murder in the future. He believed Aaron was beyond redemption for all of his life.
In the United States approximately 2,570 children are serving sentences of life without parole. In all the rest of the world combined there are only 12 other children enduring this fate! Despite a global consensus that children cannot be held to the same standards of responsibility as adults and recognition by the world’s courts that children are entitled to special protection, only the United States allows children to be punished as adults.
Recently, Cristian Fernandez, a 12-year-old child, was sentenced to life without parole. His mother was only 12 when he was born. His childhood, too, was a litany of abuse and neglect. Cristian was left alone to care for his two-year-old brother. He beat the toddler, who eventually died in the hospital.
Children are different from adults. Growing bodies of research show that the regions of the adolescent brain that regulate impulses and emotions are not fully developed. This is one of the reasons why children advocates argue that children cannot be held to the same standards as adults when they commit crimes.
Also, to expect a terrified and emotionally scarred child to exhibit remorse like an adult makes no sense. Children who commit crimes are often too traumatized to have such mature, developed consciences. We must judge them accordingly, because children are still children, even when they do unimaginably violent things. What does it reveal about American justice when we deem a 12-year-old permanently incorrigible? Why is it only in America where this sentence has been given thousands of times to children and nowhere else in the world? What hideous medusa of unconscious beliefs do we hold in America that allows us to justify imprisoning children for life?
When did we get so punitive? When did we lose our sense of mercy?
Our prison system has some safeguards in place that protect the rights of prisoners. There are way- worse conditions in prisons in some other parts of the world, but when it comes to locking up children, we are backward and uncivilized.
The ACLU and Amnesty International both have campaigns that citizens can join to fight against this shameful practice.
As for me, I will continue to paint pictures of beautiful flowers. I hope to find a different source of non-descript background noise. Our judicial system and the workings of our courts deserve my full attention. It truly is a testament to one of the freedoms we enjoy that we can just turn on the television to observe our justice system, for better or worse, in action.