Myth or Reality?

Juvenile offenders cannot receive a sentence of life in prison.

In the recent case of Graham v. Florida the Supreme Court barred juveniles from receiving life sentences. However, despite the barrage of media coverage of the case, the ruling obscured the fact that the ban on life sentences only applies to non-homicide cases. Kids who kill can still be put away for life even if they are emotionally immature or mentally unstable.  Take for example the recent conviction and sentencing of John Odgren  in Massachusetts. On January 19, 2007, a then 16 year old John Odgren followed James Alenson, a young boy he had never met, into the bathroom at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, drew out a long knife and stabbed him to death. Because he was16 at the time, Massachusetts law required that Odgren be tried as an adult and he was charged with first degree murder.  Odgren’s attorney defended him by suggesting that he was delusional and psychotic at the time of the murder:  “Why did a geeky, uncoordinated, awkward 16-year-old who had never been in any trouble with the law suddenly and without provocation ferociously stab to death a 15-year-old classmate who he did not even know?”  He further told the jury: “The illnesses that John Odgren suffers from made him lose touch with reality”.    Odgren has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, anxiety and possibly bipolar disorder, and also suffers from Asperger syndrome, a form of autism whose symptoms include significant difficulties in social interaction, repetitive patterns of behavior and interests, physical clumsiness and atypical use of language.  The prosecution did not deny that Odgren had a history of mental illness but his condition was not serious enough to be considered legal insanity; he was not delusional and knew that his actions were a crime. The jury heard that Odgren had a history of secretly bringing knives to school and enjoying violent novels, as if he were carefully planning the “perfect murder’’. After two weeks of testimony, the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder a conviction that carries a mandatory life sentence without parole.

The Odgren case shows that juveniles can be sentenced to life in prison even if they suffer from serious mental disturbance short of insanity. The Court has ruled that it is illegal to sentence teens to death because of their immaturity and to life in prison for non-capital crimes presumably for the same reason. Yet age is not a bar for a life sentence if the crime committed is murder.

Writing Assignment

In an essay address the issue of whether a minor’s immaturity, lack of judgment and risk taking should affect their treatment. Is it fair to an innocent victim like James Alenson to excuse or shorten the punishment of his teenage killer because he was “immature”?

Source:  Patricia Wen, “Odgren sentenced to life in prison, No parole option for teen killer; Lawyer brands ruling ‘barbaric’,” Boston Globe, May 1, 2010

http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2010/05/01/odgren_sentenced_to_life_in_prison?mode=PF