Number of juvenile killers rises at an alarming rate Violence in the home cited as contributor


Dwayne Wright was 17 when he spotted Saba Tekle on a highway in Northern Virginia, decided he wanted to have sex with her and pumped a bullet into her back when she tried to run away. Wright, now 19, awaits execution on Virginia's Death Row.

Five New Jersey teen-agers, two of them 14, allegedly strangled a pesky classmate with an electrical cord as he recited the Hail Mary in his car. Three of the boys admitted to the murder in April and will testify against the others.

A 14-year-old Los Angeles girl and two teen-age friends, including her 17-year-old boyfriend, allegedly poisoned, shot and burned the girl's well-meaning but strict father. The girl recorded the murder plan in her diary days before the June slaying.

Children are killing more than ever. The number of juveniles arrested for homicide between 1981 and 1990 increased 60 percent nationwide, far outpacing the 5.2 percent increase among adults, according to the most recent FBI crime statistics.

Although juveniles are still far less likely to kill than adults, an unprecedented 2,003 youths were arrested on charges of murder and non-negligent manslaughter in 1990, according to federal statistics. In 1981, one in 10 people arrested in the United States for murder was under 18; by 1990, it was one in six.

"Ten years ago, it was a rarity to have kids in Juvenile Hall charged with murder," said Rod Speer of the Orange County, Calif., Probation Department, which has recorded a 130 percent rise in juvenile homicide arrests since 1982. "Now it is not so."

Neither local nor federal statistics differentiate between gang-related and other juvenile homicides, but authorities say some of the nationwide increase can be explained by an explosion in gang- and drug-related violence in large metropolitan areas.

But the numbers go far beyond the problem of urban gang violence, many law enforcement officials and psychologists say. The escalating juvenile murder rate reflects a widespread penetration of violence into the lives of young people from all walks of life, they say.

Child abuse, television and movies, pop youth culture and the prevalence of handguns have made violence and images of violence staples in the diet of many young Americans, they say.

"I have a real grim outlook on this," said Charles Patrick Ewing, a clinical and forensic psychologist in New York who has studied the subject extensively. "I don't see it getting any better. Kids learn to kill. They learn to be violent." And they learn, he said, from their adult abusers.

Several recent studies of adolescent killers point to family influences among the possible causes of the violence. By and large, the studies dismiss the widespread popular belief that juvenile murderers are usually psychotic or kill because of bizarre mental health problems, concluding instead that many young murderers have been victims themselves.

A psychiatric study published in 1988 of 14 juveniles condemned to death found that 12 had been "brutally, physically abused" in their homes and five had been sodomized by older male relatives. The physical abuse ranged from being hit on the head with a hammer to being placed on a hot stove top.

The study, based on psychiatric tests and interviews with the youths, also showed that all but one of the condemned killers had grown up in households rife with violence.

"Not only did older family members fail to protect these adolescents, but they also often used the subjects to vent their rages and to satisfy their sexual appetites," concluded the study, which was prepared for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Paul Mones, a Santa Monica, Calif., attorney who specializes in parricide cases, said that his experience has shown that most adolescent murderers learn about -- and become desensitized -- to violence in the home.

The violence does not necessarily have to be directed against the child, Mr. Mones said. Many children who kill have learned about violence by watching their parents, aunts, uncles and siblings.

In the case of Dwayne Wright, the teen-ager on Virginia's Death Row, the boy's mother testified that her son began having behavior problems shortly after his older brother was fatally shot.

Wright, who also has been convicted of murder and attempted murder in Maryland, showed little emotion during the Tekle trial but reportedly broke into tears when his mother discussed his despair over his brother's death.

"When kids are born there is this giant jar of morality and respect for fellow human beings," Mr. Mones said. "In a good family, that giant jar is filled to the top and a lot of good things are done to kids to keep the level up there. The single greatest factor that puts fissures in that giant jar, and makes it leak out, is violence in the home."

More and more prosecutors are asking the courts to transfer youths from juvenile to adult court, prompting criticism by some groups that believe juvenile offenders should be rehabilitated, not punished. The 1988 study of 14 youths condemned to death pointed to a "paradoxical set of traditions" in U.S. criminal justice.

On the one hand, the authors note, the juvenile justice system recognizes the immaturity of youngsters and holds them less culpable than adults; but on the other hand, it metes out punishments in cases of serious offenses "as though juveniles were as responsible as adults."

Mr. Mones said that some juvenile killers belong in the adult penal system, but argues that children who kill relatives or friends after years of abuse or in an act of passion should not be treated the same as other young killers. In large part, however, society has not been willing to make exceptions for these murderers, he said.

"There is a lot more compassion in society for battered women than for battered children," Mr. Mones said.

"Unless you believe in the notion of original sin, you have to believe that society is creating some of these people who are killing," he said.

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