Punished for our crimes

Nov 10, 1999 at 12:00 am

"Nate does not appear to have the capacity to conform his behavior to the requirements of the law, and it is questionable whether he has the capacity to form the specific intent to commit the criminal acts of which he has been accused." –Margaret Stack, Ph.D., licensed psychologist, Jan. 29, 1998

"His capacity for organized, planned and appropriate behavior is very limited ... and most importantly, his mental age is 7 to 9 years." –Kathleen Sullivan, Ph.D., licensed psychologist, May 4, 1998

What are we doing? What in the hell are we doing?

That’s right. That’s what someone has needed to be screaming for the last two years. Instead, our leaders are now trying a backward child as an adult, for first-degree murder, and we are acting as ho-hum as if it were the state fair.

What in the hell are we doing? They have had this kid locked up since he was 11, and every day, world TV viewers are treated to the spectacle of this small boy brought into the Oakland County courthouse in shackles.

Many, perhaps most, of the atrocities in human history might have been prevented had someone in the right place said just that: What the hell is this? What kind of people are we? Take the Wannsee conference, when bureaucrats and logistical experts got together in an upscale suburban house one winter afternoon to discuss the ways, means, and engineering problems of killing millions of Jews.

Nobody, as far as we know, asked that question. Incidentally, it was a highly successful conference, and did much to make mass murder more efficient.

We now live in a retail world, and prefer our crimes against humanity one at a time. Today’s victim was thought utterly safe to make an example of, a poor black kid born to become part of what Thomas Wolfe calls the "chow" of the legal system.

Two years ago, preying on fears of lawless (read: black) juveniles, the far right in the Michigan Legislature got a bill passed and signed by His Rotundity making it possible to charge any child, even a newborn infant, as an adult.

Indeed, "60 Minutes" showed the bill’s author, the appalling State Sen. William Van Regenmorter, agreeing a 5-year-old might be charged with murder. Nate Abraham seemed to the Oakland County prosecutor to be the perfect ball of meat on which to demonstrate the new social engineering.

School records showed he was a disciplinary mess. Father long gone. Poor, black, inarticulate, "incorrigible."

Piece of cake. They did not, however, reckon on Geoffrey Fieger, who unexpectedly joined the case at the last minute and who has been – whatever you may think of his motives – the only powerful person to take a stand for this powerless child.

Where is Jennifer Granholm, the state attorney general? Why is the state ACLU not picketing the Oakland County courthouse? Amnesty International has taken up the case, which is great; informed world opinion will now group Michigan’s legal system with that of some particularly backward dictatorships.

Actually, medieval Transylvania is more like it. Nate has, according to the juvenile court’s evaluation, an IQ of 78. Asked by CBS’s Ed Bradley what "beyond a reasonable doubt" meant, he guessed "they have to prove me guilty with a big explanation."

We need a big explanation from Oakland County Prosecutor Dave Gorcyca, for example, who did his best on the broadcast to appear of similar IQ. Asked why he charged the child as an adult, he mentioned Nate had 22 previous "contacts" with the police. But none of these had resulted in arrest, the newsman noted.

Well, true, Gorcyca allowed.

But there sure were a lot of accusations. That’s some theory of justice. Small wonder Nate said he wants to go to law school someday.

What shocked me most, when I finally started looking at the case, was the discovery that the boy is probably innocent – certainly of any premeditated murder, and most likely of any intent to shoot anybody.

Yes, he did steal a gun, and was blasting away in his neighborhood. Werner Spitz, the Macomb County medical examiner, testified that the 18-year-old killed by the shot was struck in the top of the head by a nearly spent bullet. Possibly, it hit a tree and was deflected down and randomly wiped out Ronnie Greene.

That doesn’t mean Nate is not a mess, which he clearly was even before spending the last two-plus years in kiddie jail. The real tragedy is the world he lived in, mere blocks from suburbia, and as far away as Mars.

What we are doing, I think, is punishing Nate for the failure of our society. Even the prosecutor admits Nate’s mother repeatedly sought help, but "the system failed him."

Yet he thinks the solution now is to try this little boy for murder. Well, he’s on to something, but hasn’t reached the logical conclusion. Most likely, if convicted, Nate will someday be released, by which time he will be an efficiently hardened social psychopath. But if acquitted, he will merely be released back into the world of the streets, which means we’ll see him on the news again, and soon.

No, the best thing would be to hang him publicly, as in the old days, possibly with the sheriff pulling his tiny legs to make sure his neck snaps properly. This won’t have much deterrent effect, but hey. We’d save on prison expenses.

Especially, that is, since it would help us avoid thinking about the real issues. Get that legislature back to work; give us a bill with immediate effect, and let’s go. If the county gets a cut of the TV rights, we may even recover the cost of the trial.