System failed the children


TWENTY YEARS from now, should some extremist come calling, I want the next generation of aggressive, risk-taking, last-man-standing, bet-the-farm American warriors to protect my young nieces.

But I fear that our culture of assessing blameworthiness to normal male behavior will turn American boys into docile, cautious and compliant adults incapable of meeting great challenges.

Jeffrey, 11, is the youngest, smallest criminal defendant of my legal career.

His "crime" began during recess at Hammond Middle School, which draws many of its students from Columbia. Girls were teasing boys by smearing mayonnaise on them.

The boys reacted like boys. One boy caught a girl, picked her up and put her on the ground. Another boy grabbed the girl's ankle. Jeffrey grabbed the girl's wrist.

Somebody said: "Let's see how far we can stretch her." However menacing the tease, the boys did not stretch the girl. Jeffrey let go. Jeffrey's classmate pulled the girl across the grass for several feet.

The girl complained to the school nurse that she scratched her arm. The vice principal told Jeffrey and the other boys that they must clean the cafeteria for the transgression of "roughhousing." Then things changed for the worse.

Anna (an alias) called her mother from school and reported that another boy touched her sexually after the roughhousing. Anna's mother picked her up at school and immediately took her to a nurse.

The nurse concluded that Anna's demeanor, a bruise on her thigh and Anna's report of a burning sensation when she urinated supported Anna's allegation of sexual assault.

Anna's mother called the police. After superficial investigation, a young officer drove to Jeffrey's home and arrested Jeffrey. She handcuffed Jeffrey, took him to the station, chained him to a wall and interrogated him. Jeffrey "confessed" to holding Anna's wrist. The officer charged Jeffrey with felony sexual assault.

The criminal case was reviewed by an assistant state's attorney who prosecutes juvenile offenders. The prosecutor dismissed the sexual assault charge. She acknowledged there was no evidence that Jeffrey committed a sexual assault. But she charged Jeffrey with second-degree assault for holding Anna's wrist. A "finding of delinquency" for assault would permit the state to incarcerate Jeffrey until his 21st birthday.

As trial approached, the prosecutor proposed an out. She offered Jeffrey immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony against the other boys. She seemed unconcerned that her theory of the case would contradict Jeffrey's statement to the police, which Jeffrey contended was true. Jeffrey declined to become an immunized-testimonial-prostitute against other 11-year-olds playing during recess.

Recently, Jeffrey was tried for assault. During cross-examination, Anna admitted that she had lied about important facts during her testimony. Anna also admitted that she repeatedly lied about the incident to police and to prosecutors. In an attempt to rehabilitate the case, the prosecutor artfully led Anna through a series of leading questions designed to prove that Anna lied as a consequence of her anxiety over the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.

The juvenile judge excused Anna's perjury. He cautioned Jeffrey that what he did -- touching Anna's wrist -- can be a serious crime. He reasoned, however, that Jeffrey had no criminal intent and found Jeffrey "not involved" in delinquency.

It may be that boys and girls ought to clean the cafeteria for roughhousing. The vice principal made a judgment call of modest consequence. But others abused power to fit their personal agendas, and this is worthy of complaint. Specifically, a nurse offered forensic nonsense to support her opinion that Anna was sexually assaulted. A police officer scared an 11-year-old as an interrogation tactic. And a prosecutor was willing to manipulate the search for truth by inducing Jeffrey to change his story and help convict another child.

The nurse, cop, and prosecutor in this pathos reflect our cultural preoccupation with blameworthiness and affirmation of victim status. People who ought to know better were willing to harm Jeffrey for normal, lawful, pre-adolescent male conduct. These same people did harm to Anna by endorsing her "victim" status and abating her lies.

And all of this contributed to erosion of cultural values of very great importance: masculinity in boys, self-reliance in girls and competence in men and women.

Clarke F. Ahlers is an attorney in Columbia.

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