When I began digging through the old materials on the Jonesboro school shooting which I had accumulated while in graduate school, one item I unearthed was a brief set of notes covering a telephone interview that I conducted with June Wise. Ms. Wise was the Chief Juvenile Officer for Missouri's 40th Judicial Circuit at that time, someone with whom I worked professionally for several years - and a very good friend.
The subject of our conversation was violent juveniles. We talked on April 23, 1998, less than a month after the Jonesboro shooting.
MACY: What do you see as the underlying causes of children becoming angry and violent enough to kill?
CJO WISE: A desire for power and control. Children who are violently abused, especially before the age of eight, often have a concealed need to have control. There are other reasons also that vary from case to case.
A child needs to be looked at differently than an adult because a child is limited to what he knows.
MACY: What do you believe should happen to an eleven-year-old who murders other children?
CJO WISE: First of all the child needs to be protected - from the community and from himself. The hard question is how to protect him. If he is confined for several years he will become institutionalized. Adults who commit hideous crimes often get out after a few years. A child should have the same opportunity, but if he spends his formative years in prison he will stand very little chance of becoming successful in life.
MACY: Should parents be held criminally accountable for the actions of their children?
CJO WISE: We went from a system like that to a more lenient one. We need to impose more responsibility back on parents. Parents often protect their kids when problems arise, and then they are surprised when the kids get into serious trouble.
MACY: If Jonesboro had occurred in your circuit, what would have happened to the shooters?
CJO WISE: RSMo 211.071.1 adopted in 1995 lowered the age that a juvenile could be certified as an adult in any felony from fourteen to twelve. That same law says that any child may be certified to stand trial as an adult if they commit any of seven specific crimes - one of which is murder.
(1st degree murder, 2nd degree murder, 1st degree assault, forcible rape, forcible sodomy, 1st degree robbery, and distribution of drugs.)
MACY: So they would have been taken into custody and tried for murder as adults?
CJO WISE: Yes.
MACY: Would they be jailed with adult offenders?
CJO WISE: RSMo 211.073.1 establishes the concept of dual jurisdiction. Children can be held as juveniles by juvenile facilities while being tried as adults. There is a new facility nearing completion in Montgomery City, Missouri, that will have 50 beds and house children who have been tried as adults and sentenced to long-term imprisonment. When they turn twenty-one, our agency will back out and they will be transferred to adult prisons.
MACY: What is the minimum age that a person in Missouri can be executed for murder?
CJO WISE: I'm not certain, but I would imagine that it is twenty-one.
June never got back to me on the minimum age for the death penalty in Missouri. From what I can glean from the Internet, the minimum age for execution in Missouri would have been sixteen at that time. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2005 in a case out of Missouri (Roper v Simmons) that it was henceforth unconstitutional to execute someone for a crime committed before they reached the age of eighteen. Rehnquist, O'Connor, Thomas, and, of course, Scalia were the dissenting votes in that case.
(Tomorrow: A recap of my study on Jonesboro with the paper: "Homicidal Children: Natural Born Killers or Made in America" a look at the issue through the lenses of nature and nurture.)