Statutory

Today's edition of The (Del.) News Journal features two adjacent stories with a similar theme.

Both stories involve adults who apparently have decided that the developmental differences between minors and adults are insignificant. In both stories, teenage children are treated as fully capable of making adult decisions on the same terms and with the same capacity as adults.

The adults making such decisions seem to believe that they are dealing with exceptional children — children for whom the usual distinction between adults and minors does not apply. These children, the adults believe, ought to be treated no differently due to their age. These exceptional children are just as mature, just as responsible, just as capable of intent and consent as any given adult.

In the first story, the adult who is alleged to have treated a child in this way finds himself in trouble with the law:

The Caesar Rodney High School varsity softball coach, whose team won a state championship in June, was charged Thursday with having an ongoing sexual relationship with a player.

John P. Shields Jr., 34, … was charged with six counts of fourth-degree rape for allegedly having sex with the student.

According to court documents, Shields had sex with the student at Brecknock Park on Old Camden Road in Camden, at a church across the street from the high school and in the Dover apartment of another teacher, whose name was withheld by police.

In the second story, the adult who is treating children this way is himself a representative of the law. He is, in fact, a county prosecutor:

One of two 17-year-old boys charged in the beating death of a counselor of a Utah group home has been identified as a Delaware resident who attended the private Tatnall School for a dozen years.

Jesse Simmons, 17, of the Wilmington area, was arrested Tuesday night after trying to run from police who found him at a bus terminal in Las Vegas, Cedar City Police Department Lt. David Holm said Thursday night.

The second suspect, Sean Graham of Rockville, Md., was arrested later Tuesday night without resistance, as he walked along a Las Vegas street, Holm said.

Both teens are being held without bail after being charged as adults with aggravated murder and aggravated kidnapping in the Monday night attack, Iron County Attorney Scott Garrett said Thursday.

If convicted, they could face the death penalty, Garrett told The News Journal.

I am not suggesting that the crime of which the teens in the second story are accused is not brutal and horrifying. And I certainly am not suggesting that the coach's alleged behavior in the first story is defensible. I'm simply pointing out that here we have two adjacent stories in the paper that offer precisely contradictory notions of the meaning of adulthood and childhood.

There is no way to reconcile the views of these two stories. If one finds the coach's behavior unjustified, then one cannot approve of the prosecutor's behavior. Their logic is precisely the same.

I have never understood the basis for the magical assertion that allows prosecutors routinely to pretend that some children are not children and therefore to "try them as adults."

What would happen if one of these tough-talking statutory rapist prosecutors decided it was time to "get tough" on underage drinking. It's no use threatening these teenage tipplers with juvenile detention, he would say, that's too "soft." We need to "get serious" and try them as adults. But of course trying them as adults, in that case, would mean they were no longer guilty of underage drinking.

If the justice system for minors who commit serious crimes is inadequate, then reform that system. Don't simply wave an imaginary magic wand and pretend these children are no longer minors. Doing that makes you guilty of the same thing that the coach just got arrested for.

  • Johnny Rev

    I am not a lawyer, but I’d be seriously surprised if no defense attorney, while representing a statutory rape defendent, tried to apply the same logic used to try juveniles as adults to get the victim declared an adult, especially in a case where the “vicitm” was a consenting 17-year-old.
    Any lawyers out there know why this hasn’t been tried/hasn’t worked?

  • drieux just drieux

    There are several problems going on here Fred, one of them was the creation of the mythological entity ‘the teenager’ – a “modern artifact” of our 20th Century ‘moderns’ – I try to deal with some of the absurdities of the case in
    cf Age of Consent
    Think about the bigger picture, with the right type of court paper work on can get their 14 year old married off, but they will not be able to vote till 18, and will not be able to engage in hard drinking to deal with the consequences of their voting till they are 21.
    So our ‘artificial notion’ of a ‘teenager’ is, well, ‘unnatural’ – but not a point that most folks really want to deal with one way or the other.

  • anon

    When I was a senior in high school I had sex a couple of times with my junior-year chemistry teacher. He was 20 years older than me. I have absolutely no regrets about my actions or his, and, in fact, his positive attitudes about sex and his attraction to me were a really positive influence on me. He never used his status/power to coerce me in any way. I say this because it helps explain why I’m always of two minds about these kid/teacher had sex stories. On one hand, anyone who coerces someone else into sex is evil, particularly when the coercer has some kind of authority over the coercee. But, on the other hand, if our interactions had come to light, my teacher could have gotten into serious trouble, trouble that I do not think would have been warranted. And it’s certainly possible that he and I weren’t the only two people ever to engage in that kind of thing with no harm done to any party (and some good done, for that matter). I think teachers absolutely should avoid having sex with students they still supervise or have authority over in ANY way, but that was not the case in our situation.

  • Alabama Lefty

    It’s refreshing to finally read a commentary adddressing the ridiculousness of children being tried “as adults.” There’s no point in having a juvenile justice system if there’s no distinction to be made on the basis of age. We’ve seen 12 year olds tried “as adults” in Florida; how low are we prepared to go?

  • Mark

    I don’t know if this bears directly on your complaint, but trying minors as adults IS the reform to the system. There are specific statutes that authorize it and define the conditions. (In California it’s Welfare & Institutions Code Sec. 602; I don’t know about other states.) This isn’t just something prosecutors dreamed up.
    (Which is why no defense lawyer in a statutory rape case will try to get the victim treated as an adult. The legislature doesn’t allow for that.)

  • none

    Picking up on Mark’s point, the reform of allowing minors to be tried as adults in certain circumstances is in fact a gesture towards our conflicted notions about childhood and adulthood. But this just illustrates Fred’s original point: that our collective thinking is complicated and contradictory. Unsurprisingly, this is nowhere more the case than when sex and violence are involved, surely because innocence (sexual and otherwise) lies close to the core of beliefs about childhood.

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