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September 7, 2002
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This week, two boys in Florida were tried for the bludgeoning-murder of their father. With accusations raised of the actual killing to have been done by another, adult male with alleged sexual ties to the two boys, the boys were found guilty only of a lesser second-degree murder charge, claiming the adult must have done the actual deed... yet the jury was unaware the adult accused and being tried for that very idea was acquitted of all charges the previous week. The issue? Both trials were handled by the same prosecutor who presented completely different theories to each jury... in other words, not settling on a confident belief of who actually performed the killing, the prosecution tried to get both the adult and the pair of boys convicted for it. Isn't that risky? Or, if you like a different flavor of debate, isn't that completely unethical?
posted by XQUZYPHYR (40 comments total)

 
Jack McCoy would never do something like that.
posted by RylandDotNet at 3:41 PM on September 7, 2002


Didn't Jack McCoy do that? Or was it Ben Stone?
posted by nadawi at 3:47 PM on September 7, 2002


that's fucked up.
posted by delmoi at 3:54 PM on September 7, 2002


Well, he's done some things that were a tad iffy, but never anything as blatantly unethical as this (that I've seen, anway, I haven't watched every single episode).

Chavis, 40, was tried separately for the father's murder last week but the verdict was sealed until the teens' trial was finished to avoid influencing their jury.

Yeah, I can see why the prosecutor wouldn't want the jury to be "influenced" that way. My question is, how could the defense let that happen? Forget ethical, is this legal?
posted by RylandDotNet at 3:54 PM on September 7, 2002


As I understood it, the prosecution believed at first that Chavis had done it. Then, during the Chavis trial, it became pretty evident that he was not guilty, but instead that the boys were. The first jury made its decision, which was then sealed until the end of the boys' trial. But the prsecutor already knew the first jury's decision - he just couldn't tell anyone. So he went after the boys, knowing Chavis was going to get off. It's tricky and a matter of timing, but I'm not sure it's at all unethical. It certainly isn't illegal.
posted by risenc at 4:00 PM on September 7, 2002


According to commentary I heard on CNN last night (couldn't find it linked on their site), the judge -- who was the judge for both cases, btw -- looked at the verdict for Chavis's case before letting the trial go ahead against the two boys, because he would have had a "serious problem" with trying them if Chavis had been found guilty. Since Chavis was found not guilty the judge green-lighted the boys' trial. This apparently could at least create some problems on appeal.
posted by redshoes3 at 4:01 PM on September 7, 2002


(damnit risenc has fast fingers)
posted by redshoes3 at 4:02 PM on September 7, 2002


It's not as unethical as trying children as adults just because you're really, really horrified by what they're alleged to have done. No, I don't want them to walk the streets free anytime soon, but I see absolutely no potential for a positive outcome when juvenile offenders are required to go through puberty in a prison meant for adults.

I also don't understand why a country so obsessed with protecting its children can judge them to be as competent as adults at such a young age. If a 12-year-old is capable of adult judgment when he commits murder, why are we so concerned about the movies, video games and music lyrics he's exposed to? If he's so easily manipulated by the media, why do we hold him fully responsible for his own actions?

Americans want everyone punished in every group they don't themselves belong to, all the time. That's the only explanation I can come up with.
posted by Epenthesis at 4:07 PM on September 7, 2002


Doesn't the idea that the prosecution is advancing two mutually exclusive theories of how the murder happen indicate that there must be a reasonable doubt with respect to both theories? I know that it's the jury (as opposed to the prosecution) that must be convined of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but in this case it seems to me that the jury's decision that there was no reasonable doubt of the boys' guilt was influenced by the withholding of information. I certainly think there's grounds for an appeal here - I'd very much like a court to weigh in on whether the prosecutors' tactics were legal.

Beyond that legal wrangle, I think that it's horrible that these two kids were tried as adults - particularly if they were the subjects of sexual abuse. The juvenile justice system is broken in lots of respects, and I think the move to try ever younger children as adults is a reaction to the fact that the juvenile justice system has no teeth. But I wish people would start talking about reforming the juvenile justice system and giving it teeth, rather than just throwing people who are clearly not adults into the adult justice system.

(On preview: yeah, what Epenthesis said.)
posted by Chanther at 4:10 PM on September 7, 2002


Ethics don't really come into it in an adversarial system. The lawyers job isn't to seek the truth but to gain a decision favourable to his client.
posted by Fat Buddha at 4:47 PM on September 7, 2002


But the prosecution wasn't advancing two m/e theories at the same time - it was one, then the other. And it wasn't the plan, at the outset, to prosecute the two boys - that only became, as I understood, glaringly obvious once Chavis' trial was underway. So, a midstream correction, of sorts, was necessary. It's unconventional, but unethical? I'm not sure.
posted by risenc at 5:36 PM on September 7, 2002


It's Florida, where a 12 year old, while wrestling with a 6 year, accidently killed her, got life in prison.
posted by benjh at 5:39 PM on September 7, 2002


But the prosecution wasn't advancing two m/e theories at the same time - it was one, then the other. And it wasn't the plan, at the outset, to prosecute the two boys - that only became, as I understood, glaringly obvious once Chavis' trial was underway. So, a midstream correction, of sorts, was necessary. It's unconventional, but unethical? I'm not sure.

Yes. When someone is murdered, the prosecuter's job is to determine who did it, and convict them. And it is not altogether uncommon for facts to emerge during a trial that were not clear prior to the trial (though it seems to happen to Jack McCoy rather more often than it does in the real world). If it became clear to the prosecutor that Chavis did not do it, and that it was quite likely that the boys did, it would have "unethical" not to try the boys.
posted by MidasMulligan at 5:59 PM on September 7, 2002


Fat Buddha, you are right, but the theory on which the adversarial system is based, in other words the reason why we put up with having it (as opposed to, say, a judge-driven inquisitorial system where the point of the exercise is to arrive at the truth) is that lawyers' duty to the Court is supposed override their duty to their clients. In other words, if lawyers become aware of something (a fact or point of law) unfavorable to their case, they are supposed to bring it up, and address it inasmuch as it's addressable. This is the 'handbrake' of the adversarial system. You tell the court everything you know, and why your client's story should be accepted, and we'll tell the court everything we know, and why our client's story should be accepted.

This doesn't occur anywhere near enough in practice, and the legal systems of common law countries would be a great deal better for it if it did. That is, enforced penalties and disbarments for breaching lawyers' duties. Too many lawyers are in it to make a quick buck, too few because we need an efficient and honest legal system.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:11 PM on September 7, 2002


If it became clear to the prosecutor that Chavis did not do it, and that it was quite likely that the boys did, it would have "unethical" not to try the boys.

I agree, but then why did the prosecutor not drop the charges against Chavis? Is that not possible?

[Prosecutor Rimmer] said it was up to the jury to decide, adding: "I don't have a dog in this fight"

That seems like an asinine statement for a prosecuting attorney to make. It's your freaking job to pick "a dog" in the fight and bring them to trial, not bring charges against every person the victim knew and let a bunch of juries sort it out.
posted by pitchblende at 6:36 PM on September 7, 2002


Fat Buddha is wrong. Prosecutors are a special case. They are required to seek justice, not to win every case that comes across their desk.
posted by donpardo at 6:54 PM on September 7, 2002


I think this just about worked itself out. Only just. Though I doubt such a thing would have happened in Britain, where the Crown Prosecution Service prepares prosecution cases: it would have picked the case most likely to result in a guilty verdict, and proceeded with that one; and had it resulted in an acquittal, the case would have been reopened, and the alternative pursued. So I think donpardo's being a little disingenuous here: prosecuting counsel in an adversarial system (as opposed to a fact-finding one, such as is common in continental Europe) is obliged to present its case in a manner designed to gain a favourable verdict, unless the evidence renders that case untenable.
posted by riviera at 7:06 PM on September 7, 2002


Jesse DeWayne Jacobs is dead, executed in Texas five years ago. Someone else is serving time for the same crime. The two trials played out in a manner similar to the trials under discussion, even to the point of having the same prosecutor.

On a slightly related topic, Shaka Sankofa was executed in Texas two years ago, for a crime committed when he was 17, probably by someone else. Don't click these links if you don't want to wind up depressed and/or angry.
posted by Nicolae Carpathia at 7:38 PM on September 7, 2002


In the summer of 1999, Lionel Tate was 12 years old and 166 pounds when he began wrestling in his South Florida living room with Tiffany Eunick, a delicate girl of 6 who weighed 46 pounds.
When the paramedics arrived, Tiffany was lifeless, with vomit on her clothes. Her skull was fractured, several ribs were broken and her liver was torn. Tate said he had only been playing when he swung her around and into a spiral staircase. Graphic autopsy photos would later detail more than 30 injuries.


I'm no doctor, but those injuries hardly seem accidental to me.
posted by Oriole Adams at 7:47 PM on September 7, 2002


My point was not whether he was guilty or not, because yes he was guilty, and yes he should be severely punished. However, I think that for a 12 year old, a life sentence in prison is just ridiculous.
posted by benjh at 8:08 PM on September 7, 2002


Man I am very glad that I haven't been held responsible -- for the rest of my life-- for decisions that I made when I was 12. The courts and the Child Services Dept (big surprise here) and every adult in these childrens' lives let them down. They were thrown into foster care for a time, their mother left them, they were sexually abused as well as mentally abused I'm sure. Well surprise, surprise, they did something horrible.

This country seems to be great at throwing water on a burning fire but can't seem to stop the match from striking in the first place.
posted by bas67 at 8:58 PM on September 7, 2002


This country seems to be great at throwing water on a burning fire but can't seem to stop the match from striking in the first place.

Change that gratuitous "this country" to "Humanity" and I'm with you. Evil happens, and will always happen, everywhere. The only thing rational humans can do is throw well-placed buckets of water when there are flare-ups, to keep the whole planet from burning up. But there's no way of preventing the flare-ups all the time.

I'm really stretching my metaphors today.

Does anyone know what the domestic situation of these boys was like? I haven't really heard that much about it, other than that the boy's father and mother were seperated. What were they doing hanging out with Chavis anyway?
posted by evanizer at 9:13 PM on September 7, 2002


The prosecution had offered a plea deal for three years in juvenile hall, one year of house arrest and 10 years of probation and counseling. Lionel's mother rejected the offer.

His mother rejected the plea deal, and so he has to spend his life in an adult prison. There seems something terribly wrong with that. Adult or child, but not both.
posted by kayjay at 9:18 PM on September 7, 2002


evanizer,

Are you telling me that you think that this awful tragedy could not have been derailed if one, just one, adult had stepped in and really tried to look after the best interests of these boys?

Children have become throwaways. There are groups of people in this country and everywhere that have no earthly idea how to raise a child nor do they seem to care about those kids. Those kids tend to go on and have kids of their own and do the same crappy job. In third world countries maybe economics and education (or lack thereof) are an excuse. But here in the richest country in the world we have no excuse for not protecting our children. Yet social services and it's workers are generally the most under paid and overworked part of state governments. We should be ashamed.

When the kids that have been ignored and thrown away and turnaround and bite us in the ass, we should not be surprised!
posted by bas67 at 10:04 PM on September 7, 2002


Epenthesis: I can't speak for Florida, but in most states, juveniles convicted of crimes do time in juvenile-only facilities until they are 18. For example, the boys who six years ago threw a younger child off of a housing project 14th floor balcony, convicted at ages 12 and 13, became the nation's youngest inmates -- since the Illinois Department of Corrections Juvenile Division had only held 14-18 year olds before that date. There was even a court battle over the type of facility that would hold them, and in the end special arrangements were made to accomodate them. Chicago, of course, is the home of the first separate juvenile justice system in the world, 100 years ago, which was set up precisely because of your concerns, which I suggest are -- at least in specifics -- a little outdated.

As for the ethics of the prosecution, and speaking to riviera's point, the usual way it's done is as described, that is, sequentially. It's very unusual in murder cases to have contradictory theories presented even if the trials are separate -- but it's surely not the first time, and I remember a local case very similar to this involving two adult men who robbed a liquor store, killing the clerk: both prosecuted as the triggerman because both insisted the other had done it: a classic prisoner's dilemma. Procedurally, though, I'm not sure there's anything standing in its way, if both trials withstand appeal on their own merits.
posted by dhartung at 10:13 PM on September 7, 2002


I think one of the problems is that many people view a child as an accessory. "I want a baby... but maybe I should get a puppy instead. What do you think?" "Well, if you have to ask, that automatically makes the default puppy."
posted by benjh at 10:18 PM on September 7, 2002


Ignored and thrown away? Again, I don't know the domestic situation of these kids, but they certainly didn't seem ignored and thrown away. And it's not the place of social services to serve as the first line of defense in the upbringing of children, it's the parents duty. In this case, it seems that there was at least a nominal amount of parental care (the kids weren't starving, they had shelter, education, etc.). How in the world could social services have prevented these kids from murdering their father? Take them away and put them in a foster home? I doubt that would have solved any problems.

I also believe that these kids were old enough to have agency (they certainly had agency when they rather nonchalantly took the bat to dad's head so they could run away with their 'lover') and it was the right decision to try them as adults. I don't think a bad home life in any way justifies murder (unless you're defending yourself from immediate harm). I had a really rotten life, especially when I was a young teenager, and I never killed anyone (though I certainly wanted to bludgeon both father and stepfather). There's something that seperates how I responded to my crappy life from how these boys responded (if indeed they had a crappy life). It's called fundamental morality (i.e. don't beat dad to death with baseball bat). Obviously and sadly these boys didn't have that, and I don't see how any social service could have provided them with it. That's the parent's job. And even if they were brought up with that fundamental sense of morality (don't bludgeon people with bats), they don't necessarily follow it, especially if they're evil.
posted by evanizer at 10:19 PM on September 7, 2002


evanizer - according to the talking head i watched on cnn this morning, chavis, a previously convicted paedophile, was having "a sexual relationship" (which to me is just out and out mental abuse and rape given the age diff) with the younger of the 2 children. not that i advocate killing your parents because they're irresponsible fuckwits who have put you in harms way, but my emotional reaction to all this is well he kinda got what he deserved.

i've been wondering why all this abuse seemed to account for nothing pre-trial, when they were deciding how to try them and what sort of charges should be laid...? charging them as adults seems completely inappropriate given the circumstances.
posted by t r a c y at 10:56 PM on September 7, 2002


My point was not whether he was guilty or not, because yes he was guilty, and yes he should be severely punished. However, I think that for a 12 year old, a life sentence in prison is just ridiculous.

You can blame the kid's lawyer, actually. He tried to glorify the case in the media and blame professional wrestling--he even went so far as to try and subpoena famous professional wrestlers like Dwayne Johnson (The Rock).

Not that the kid should be in jail for the rest of his life, but his attorney should have had his shit together.
posted by The God Complex at 11:05 PM on September 7, 2002


I don't think a bad home life in any way justifies murder

Neither do I, but I think it can certainly go a long way toward explaining why some people with bad home lives end up as murderers (nearly every serial killer on record had a bad home life, that seems like more than mere coincidence). Especially when you're talking about children, who may not have had enough experiences outside their bad home life to learn, or be mature enough to understand, that things can be any different.
posted by biscotti at 12:11 AM on September 8, 2002


Agreed.
posted by evanizer at 12:21 AM on September 8, 2002


...I think it can certainly go a long way toward explaining why some people with bad home lives end up as murderers...

So true. We can't excuse the behavior and let the perpetrators off the hook, but we can try to understand and forgive (in our hearts).

In regards to adopted children, my family went through a very similar experience that the foster family had in this story. I was around seven and my parents adopted two kids (girl and boy) around the same age as me. My parents really tried to help these kids out but in the end they went back into foster care. The girl stayed with us for maybe 3 months. She was extremely sexually disturbed. The boy, however, was with us for about 3 years so I got to be pretty close with him.

Even after 3 years this boy was not getting any better and my parents had no choice but to send him back. It was my brother and I that drove him to the airport to catch a plane back to the adoption agency. I'll never forget the petrified look in his eyes as we went on the plane with him to say goodbye.

I don't know what happened to him after we left him sitting on that plane but to this day I have nightmares of that kid. Now he's an adult and chances are that (a) he's dead (b) he's in jail (c) he's got a family and is repeating the same cycle of abuse that he went through as a kid. If he is alive and has become a disturbed adult: Is it his fault? Yes, he is an adult and I believe has a responsibility to answer for his actions. But his behavior today is a result of a number of circumstances and no matter what he has done in his life I forgive him. Others might see him as a dangerous man but I still see a frightened child who doesn't know why he is the way he is.
posted by poopy at 5:23 AM on September 8, 2002


Here is a harrowing site about the War on Teenagers including this tidbit:

, the governors of California and New Mexico appealed in the name of victims of juvenile crime for laws to lower their states' execution ages to 14 and 13.

Also check out this other page from their web site with its state by state guide to crimes against juveniles.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:53 AM on September 8, 2002


What I haven't been able to find in any story about this case is, while we know the second jury did not know of the first jury's verdict, did either jury know the other case existed and, if so, did either jury know that the other case was based on a different prosecution theory?

they certainly had agency when they rather nonchalantly took the bat to dad's head so they could run away with their 'lover'

This is probably the sickest thing I've read on Metafilter. It's one thing to debate how children are handled in the justice system as compared to adults, but it's another to attribute to them some soap-opera cliche comparable to the cheating housewife or husband in mid-life crisis. Your post appears to concede that there was indeed a sexual relationship between both boys and the adult. If such a relationship existed, the boys, whether or not they participated in the murder, certainly had a distorted perspective.

Maybe it's just that I can't imagine anyone, other than a pedophile, using the word 'lover' to characterize either the relationship between them or the boys' perception of that relationship. To me, it's akin to saying that Jonbenet Ramsey would not be dead today if she weren't such a tease.
posted by troybob at 9:14 AM on September 8, 2002


Please notice my use of scare quotes around the word "lover", troybob. The news stories about the case quote Alex King saying that he "loved" Chavis and planned to go live with him after the murder. My use of the word "lover" was intended to be ironic, due to the obvious disparity between the generally understood conception of love and what was occuring in this case. I say this because it almost sounds like you're calling me a pedophile on a public forum, which I would consider to be legally actionable libel, were I a litigious sort of person. Perhaps my ironic characterization of the 'relationship' in this case was ill-conceived, but certainly doesn't justify your inferences. And if you think that is the sickest thing you have ever seen on MetaFilter, you obviously haven't been reading very closely.
posted by evanizer at 10:10 AM on September 8, 2002


hey troybob, for what it's worth, I saw some of the actual trial on msnbc during the week when the younger kid was testifying, and from what I saw in his testimony it did seem like the kid "was into" his relationship with the Chavis guy. Not that the guy wasn't taking advantage of the kid's years, but the kid wasn't claiming that Chavis was juts repeatedly attacking him or anything.
posted by stifford at 10:39 AM on September 8, 2002


Evanizer, my intention was not to intimate that you are a pedophile, but that your statement in its context seemed to me characteristic of one. I would sooner attribute the statement to carelessness of language or my own lack of imagination than say it is some evidence of pedophilic tendency. The point I (apparently badly) tried to make was that the statement as quoted assumes the point of view of the boys who were convicted. It is a pedophile fantasy that the child would consider him a lover, a term with clear romantic/sexual connotations (that otherwise are conspicuously absent from your posts). I noted the quotes and weighed them in in my response, but it still seems to me that the use of the term ignores realities about sexual abuse of a child by an adult, particularly in the context of an argument that the child should be tried as an adult in court.

Perhaps its the paradox I find so offensive: If a child could consider the pedophile a 'lover', when in actuality that person is a sexual predator, how can one state that child, guilty of the crime or not, has a sufficient grip on reality/morality to be tried in court as an adult?
posted by troybob at 11:47 AM on September 8, 2002


What I haven't been able to find in any story about this case is, while we know the second jury did not know of the first jury's verdict, did either jury know the other case existed and, if so, did either jury know that the other case was based on a different prosecution theory?

According to one juror interviewed in the NYT this morning, the boys' conviction on 2nd- instead of 1st-degree murder charges was based on the jury's determination that Chavis helped. The jury was apparently horrified when they found out the results of the first trial.
posted by thomas j wise at 11:57 AM on September 8, 2002


Riviera - I am not being disingenuous. My Lovely Wife (tm) is an Ass't District Attorney and I can assure you that the goal is justice, not winning.
posted by donpardo at 12:29 PM on September 8, 2002


donpardo- I work for a criminal defense lawyer and I can assure you that the goal, for both sides, is winning.
posted by Ty Webb at 9:12 AM on September 9, 2002


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