Just Mercy

by Bryan Stevenson

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Why are wrongful convictions and illegal trials involving young children common in Just Mercy?

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Based on the evidence in Just Mercy, wrongful convictions and illegal trials involving young children are common because of racism, discrimination, poverty, harmful media narratives from the 1980s, and poor understanding of children's psychology.

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In Just Mercy (2014), Bryan Stevenson, the head of advocacy group Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), notes that a disproportionately large number of cases he comes across involve juvenile offenders, some of whom are children as young as fourteen. Stevenson gives a few reasons why some children not only often find themselves tried and sentenced as adults, but also victims of wrongful convictions.

One, most juvenile offenders wrongfully sentenced in America are either poor or minorities, or both. Many come from violent, abusive backgrounds, such as Trina Garnett, sentenced for culpable homicide when she was fourteen. Garnett had met unspeakable sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her father and had faced periods of homelessness by the time she was involved in the crime for which she was sentenced. Yet these factors were not considered at the time of her sentencing. Moreover, poor, abused children like Garnett do not have access to competent lawyers ready to fight for them, which makes them easy targets for sentencing. As Stevenson's mentor Steve Bright succinctly puts it,

Capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment.

Discrimination against racial minorities makes the issue even worse for black and brown children. Stevenson notes the case of a black child named George, who was tried for the murder of two white girls simply because he reported seeing them before they disappeared.

Secondly, the sustained media hysteria around “super-predators” in the 1980s and 1990s contributed for a long time to the belief that many juvenile offenders in the US were budding psychopaths that had to be jailed to keep the rest of the population safe. Based on the super-predator theory, many US states passed laws that enabled them to try, convict, and even execute children as adults. According to Stevenson,

Many states lowered or eliminated the minimum age for trying children as adults, leaving children as young as eight vulnerable to adult prosecution and imprisonment.

By the time the super-predator theory was dismissed in 2001, Stevenson notes that it was already too late for children like Trina. When Stevenson met Trina for the first time, in 2014, she was fifty-two, having already spent thirty-eight years in jail.

Finally, the increased number of trials and convictions of juveniles takes place because, until recently, the justice system ignored some basic scientific truths about the difference between children’s and adults’ brains. These differences have been extensively documented by doctors, neurologists, and sociologists—yet the justice system, and to some extent public opinion, resolutely discounted them until a few years ago. For instance, it is proven that the adolescent brain is biologically weak at impulse control, forcing vulnerable teenagers to make rash, poorly thought-out decisions. In sentencing teenagers as adults, courts ignore this sociobiological component of their behavior.

Not only that: children’s behavior under pressure (such as during interrogation by hostile, intimidating police officers) is skittish and unpredictable, leading child after child to confess to a crime they may not have committed, simply to escape the questions bombarding them. In the case of children from poor backgrounds, who often don’t have a parent or lawyer to protect them during the interrogation process, such confessions become damning, leading to wrongful trials. Even during trials, vulnerable children also tend to offer conflicting testimonies, since they process trauma in a different way from adults. Often, children also exhibit magical thinking, which leads to varying accounts. When lawyers, judges, and juries preside over the trials of children without taking these mitigating factors into account, the number of wrongful convictions tends to rise.

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Children are supposed to be considered differently under the law than adults for several reasons. One of the most important reasons is that the brain, even in older teenagers, is not completely developed and has significant differences from the adult brain. These differences in maturity place children at particular risk in the justice system. One significant problem referenced in Just Mercy involves charging children with adult crimes.

Just Mercy mentions the cases of several children as young as thirteen and fourteen years of age who are tried by the adult court system instead of in the juvenile court system.

According to youth.gov,

the juvenile justice process operates according to the premise that youth are fundamentally different from adults, both in terms of level of responsibility and potential for rehabilitation. The primary goals of the juvenile justice system, in addition to maintaining public safety, are skill development, habilitation, rehabilitation, addressing treatment needs, and successful reintegration of youth into the community.

If it is widely recognized that juvenile offenders have a lower level of responsibility for their offenses and are far more likely than adults to be successfully rehabilitated, it is reasonable to wonder why so many defendants in the adult justice system are thirteen years old or even younger. The answers may lie in both racial injustice and poverty.

Black and Hispanic youth are grossly over-represented in being charged as adults and receiving long prison sentences, including life without parole. One possible reason for this may be that these youth come to the attention of the justice system at an early age for behavior that may be taken lightly when committed by white youths. If a Black or Hispanic juvenile has any prior history of criminal behavior or violence, whether fairly or not, he or she is far more likely to be prosecuted for more serious crimes as an adult.

Wrongful convictions of children charged and tried as adults can happen for several reasons. As a child, the accused is far less likely to be aware of his rights under the law, such as the right to remain silent and to request a lawyer. While they may hear the standard Miranda warning informing them of these rights when they are arrested, it is highly probable that these young people do not understand these rights fully. They are likely to be easily intimidated by the police and frightened into making incriminating statements. They may be worn down by interrogations and make false confessions to simply bring the interrogation to an end. If they are charged and tried, it may be far more difficult for them to assist in their own defense at trial because of a lack of maturity and knowledge.

Poverty may also be a contributing factor to wrongful convictions or overly harsh sentences of children. Children of higher economic status have more access to highly skilled attorneys who are able to provide adequate attention to their cases. Poor children are far more likely to be assigned a public defender. While many public defenders are talented lawyers who serve in their roles because of their belief in the need for the poor to have a high-quality defense, they are often overworked and underpaid. A public defender is far more likely than a private attorney to have an overwhelming caseload, leading to less attention for each client. Public defenders also do not have the investigatory resources that private attorneys may be able to pay for.

Attorneys like Bryan Stevenson of Just Mercy and those who work for various Innocence Projects and Conviction Integrity Units around the country are seeking to right some of the wrongs inflicted by the justice system disproportionately to children of color or poverty. Wrongful convictions occur for many reasons, but the charging of children as adults is one that could be quickly remedied.

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Young children are considered very unreliable witnesses. Their memories are not fully developed and they are more vulnerable to the emotional pressures associated with interrogation. The memories they do have are easily manipulated by prosecutors' lines of questioning, particularly questions that are suggestive and lean toward certain answers. These observations are supported by contemporary psychologists and lawyers. This is just to give you perspective on children as witnesses (this will become relevant in a few paragraphs).

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption explores the opposite perspective in which juveniles are wrongfully persecuted. Bryan Stevenson offers an authoritative perspective as a lawyer. In the 1980s and 1990s, he represented juveniles in Alabama, the state which had the most children sentenced to death per capita in the country. During this time, children could be sentenced to die in the United States.

Stevenson notes a vast number of issues in the justice system associated with juveniles. He asserts that children should never be tried in an adult court; even a child of 14 cannot adequately defend themselves in the adult criminal justice system. Issues also arise when another child (or multiple children) testify against another child, as I mentioned previously. These same issues can be seen with children who have been convicted; in particular, there is a common phenomenon referred to as "confession contamination," which is a tactic that can be used to illicit false confessions and operates on the same principles as a witness testimony.

Moreover, there are a substantial number of cases in which juveniles are tried for murder using a firearm. For example, if a child is being physically abused by a parent or guardian, they are unable to effectively defend themselves using physical force. There are also many cases in which children have been convicted of murder using a firearm to defend a sibling or a parent from another adult.

Issues also arise in cases involving rape and self-defence cases. In rape trials, DNA evidence is required. Many children are uncomfortable disclosing the fact that they have been raped, and some never feel comfortable disclosing this—especially if it involves a parent, sibling, or family friend.

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