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How liable for a crime should a 12-year-old be?

Thursday, December 13, 2012 - 12:01 am

Boy accused of killing was rushed into adult court too quickly.

The Indiana Court of Appeals made the right call in its unanimous decision to toss the 25-year sentence of Paul Henry Gingerich for conspiracy to commit murder. The court didn’t say Gingerich, who was 12 at the time of his crime, should have been tried in juvenile court, merely that he was denied due process by the hurried way his case was moved to adult court.

The ruling said the juvenile court in Kosciusko County had “abused its discretion” in 2010 by not giving Gingerich’s attorneys more time to prepare their arguments. They were given only four business days. In similar cases in other counties, attorneys have been given as much as three months.

Facing the possibility of 45 years in prison, Gingerich pleaded guilty for the 25-year sentence.

But he didn’t understand the proceedings, the appeals court noted. It cited a psychologist who found that the boy thought the judge was obligated to find him guilty, didn’t understand plea bargaining and didn’t even understand many of the words used by his lawyer.

Whether Gingerich’s case should stay in juvenile court when he gets his do-over proceedings is a matter of debate. As Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller observed, the cases of children who commit “very violent” adult crimes are among “the most disheartening seen in the criminal justice system” and “balancing the rights of the juvenile with the safety of the community” is tricky, risky business.

Gingerich’s crime certainly qualified for that “very violent” label. He helped 15-year-old co-defendant Colt Lundy kill Lundy’s stepfather, Phil Danner. They each fired two bullets into the man, then got in a car with a third boy and took off for an intended cross-country excursion.

But attorney Monica Foster, who took Gingerich’s case pro bono, correctly argues that research in recent years into brain development suggests that children as young as 12 have trouble judging the consequences of their actions.

Furthermore, the parts of the brain that put the brakes on risky behavior aren’t fully developed until much later.

How liable should we hold people for committing actions they don’t fully comprehend? In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment for those as old as 16 or 17 violated the Eight Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Shouldn’t someone who was 12 at the time of his crime at least get more than four days for his fate to be decided?

Zoeller must now decide whether to appeal the decision to the Indiana Supreme Court. We don’t envy him that decision.