WASHINGTON—Before he raped and strangled a 9-year-old Philadelphia girl, Kevin Hughes was a tyrannized child who needed help.
His drug-addicted and mentally ill mother used him as a sexual plaything when she was around and left him to wander the streets begging for food when she wasn't.
The many men in his mother's life also sexually abused Kevin and taught him that women were to be subjugated. Some of them beat him savagely while his mother stood by watching. Sometimes she laughed.
After Kevin, who was 16 at the time, killed Rochelle Graham and burned her body in an abandoned house, the community's thirst for vengeance overwhelmed any inclination to sift through the wreckage of his childhood or figure out how he'd become such a monster. There was no discussion of how the criminal justice system might punish him and address his stark pathologies. So, in a matter of months, he was tried, convicted and sent to death row.
That was in 1981. Last month, in a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that Kevin and 71 other juvenile killers can't be executed, opening the door to a broader debate about the nature of juvenile justice.
If execution is improper, experts say, why is life without parole—the penalty these 72 killers now face—any more appropriate? If, as the court said, juvenile offenders are fundamentally different from adults, why shouldn't these youthful murderers be offered a promise of rehabilitative treatment?
"The whole idea of juvenile justice revolves around the idea that we're dealing with fixable people, kids who are still developing, but the death penalty made that idea irrelevant," said Stephen Harper, a public defender who teaches on juvenile justice at the University of Miami. "Now that execution is out of the picture, I think there are other issues we can confront. Can adolescent killers be rehabilitated? And should that be the goal?"
Charles Hobson, an attorney with the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims advocate in California, said there's more to it than that.
"Punishment limits crime with an appropriate expenditure of resources, and people understand that," he said. "Other things may help offenders, but they won't necessarily keep the public safer, and that's a problem."
If policymakers blanch at the notion of re-thinking juvenile justice, it may be because of this dramatic tension that's developed between those who see young killers as treatable and those who consider them doomed souls in need of perpetual punishment.
The juvenile justice system in this country evolved around the notion of rehabilitation and treatment, but a surge in adolescent crime during the early 1980s inspired a crackdown. States began narrowing the age range for offenders who'd be considered juveniles, virtually eliminating older teens from the category. Judges were stripped of much of the discretion they had to treat juveniles differently, with many states adopting mandatory minimum sentences.
Youthful killers have almost universally been kicked up into the adult system, making it a foregone conclusion that the paths of their lives would be set solely by their crimes and without any consideration for the frequently awful circumstances that surrounded their childhoods.
The death penalty was never common in this country for juveniles, and by the time the high court eliminated it last month, most states had already turned their backs on it. But juvenile justice experts say it remained a terrible distraction from a discussion of broader options for young killers. The argument, they say, was too often about whether life without parole or death was appropriate. Treatment wasn't considered.
"It was definitely in the way," said Marsha Levick, the legal director of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, referring to the death penalty. "Now that you can't execute juveniles anymore, it may give us a real opening."
That prospect isn't just because of the court's decision in Roper v. Simmons. It's also because of the reasoning Justice Anthony Kennedy used in writing the majority opinion in the 5-4 case, which hints at the potential—and perhaps the overwhelming need—for broader reform.
Quoting from groundbreaking studies of the adolescent brain, Kennedy declared that juveniles lacked the maturity and sense of responsibility that would allow them to be considered "the most deserving of execution," which is the court's standard for capital punishment. He said they're more vulnerable to "negative influences and outside pressure" and that an adolescent's character is "not as well formed as that of an adult."
The differences between juveniles and adults "render suspect any conclusion that a juvenile falls among the worst offenders," Kennedy said. "From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed."
Harper, the Miami public defender, said many of the same things could be said of life without parole.
"The United Nations convention on human rights prohibits life sentences for juveniles, just like the death penalty," he said. "I've had clients who did terrible things but were fine if they were treated and medicated."
However, Hobson, of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, points out that if Kennedy's logic in the Roper case were applied to other sentences, the public backlash would be overwhelming.
"The problem is that he made a categorical distinction about youth, and people know that's not right, that there are some offenders who, despite their age, are fully culpable for their crimes," Hobson said. He said any move to create broad legal exceptions for juvenile murderers would meet the same resistance that doomed efforts in the 1980s to hold mentally ill offenders to lower standards.
"It will be like the Twinkie defense for juveniles," he said, referring to the infamous claim by a California murderer that his junk food diet impaired his mental capacity. "No one will go for it."
If the pessimists are right, however, there's no hope for offenders like Kevin Hughes.
His childhood is remarkable not only for its horror, but also for how strongly it was connected to the crime he committed and how desperately it cries out for treatment.
One of six children fathered by five different men, Kevin was always "mentally slow" and "mentally ill," according to family members who testified during his appeals.
His mother was addicted to drugs and was mentally ill, as well. She would leave the children for months at a time without supervision, forcing them to wander the streets of their Philadelphia neighborhood begging for food.
When Kevin's mother was around, she subjected the children—and Kevin in particular—to bizarre and severe mental abuse. She showed the children nude pictures of herself, forced them to watch her have sex with boyfriends and sometimes chided them for "not being man enough" to please her. She would talk about having orgies and often had sex with more than one man in front of the children. Kevin got beatings from the men when he tried to pull them away from his mother.
Kevin's mother once overdosed on sleeping pills while trying to commit suicide, and Kevin, then 11, followed suit. The downed pills rendered him unconscious and got him a trip to the hospital, but he wasn't taken from the home.
The most prominent male figure in Kevin's life was the father of his two youngest siblings, who dressed as a woman and forced Kevin to sleep in the same bed with him and his mother. He "taught" Kevin beginning at age 5 about sex, the family said, by molesting him and showing him how to have sex with a woman. While he violated Kevin's mother, he told Kevin that women were supposed to be subjugated by men.
"It was disgusting and sad to hear Kevin talk about the things he had learned from Isaac and his mother," said Yvonne Williams, an aunt. "He was just a little boy. It was even sadder because Kevin was mentally disturbed and could not think properly."
When Kevin was 17, a young girl from his neighborhood told police that he'd sexually abused her. The details of her assault led police to connect Kevin with the rape and strangulation of Rochelle Graham, a 9-year-old whose burned body had been found 10 months earlier in an abandoned house.
Kevin was charged with murder, convicted and sentenced to death. At trial, he was sedated with thorazine to prevent him from acting out in the courtroom. His attorney failed to present the jury with any evidence of his childhood, which could have inspired the jury to sentence him to life in prison instead.
Robert Dunham, a lawyer in the Philadelphia federal defender's office that now represents Kevin, said straight punishment didn't make much sense for someone like Kevin, but that's all that was on the table.
"That's the way it works," Dunham said. "The adult system isn't about treatment."
Kevin is now 43, and he sat on death row for 24 years before the high court said he couldn't be executed. His mental problems have worsened, and court records show he's tried to commit suicide several times and has been committed to an institution for the criminally insane five times. He's been treated with a dizzying array of psychotropic drugs to control his behavior in prison, but the goal has never been to address the root of his problems: a childhood defined by abuse.
Levick, of the Juvenile Law Center, said Hughes' case was a tragically missed opportunity.
"There are things that probably should have been done for him, before we even got to the point of talking about a death sentence," she said. "But to do that, we have to step back from the crime, no matter how awful it is, and look at the person involved.
"That's hard to do, but I think the death penalty ruling suggests it's something we ought to try."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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