by | Aug 23, 2009 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Trisha Babcock was twice the age of the person who allegedly shot and killed her.

And she was only 24.

Which makes the gunman only 12.

So here comes another hand-wringing debate over whether children are still children when they kill like adults.

Try this sentence on for size: The kid was sixth-grade age. You hear that, you think “child.”

Now try this sentence: The kid was 6 feet 2 and allegedly pointed the gun at close range and fired. Sounds pretty adult all of a sudden, doesn’t it?

The problem is, both sentences are true. Which is why it’s so mind-numbingly difficult to know what to do here.

It’s why the father of the murdered girl told the news media, “Part of me feels remorse for the kid because he’s so young, and then part of me wants to choke the living (expletive) out of him.”

What do you do? Do you treat Demarco Harris, a 12-year-old, as an adult, and if found guilty imprison him for life?

Or do you say a child is a child, and if Harris is found guilty only put him away, at most, until he is 21, then set him free? Tragic intersection

On the one hand, it’s hard to argue that a 12-year-old is fully formed. Think back to when you were 12. How much did you understand the ramifications of things? How much did you change in the years that followed?

Throw in the world in which Harris lives, the prevalence of violence, the fast access to guns, and you easily could conclude that this is a tragic intersection of immaturity and a bullet.

On the other hand, critics who say a 12-year-old doesn’t understand what he’s doing are also a little off. This isn’t about understanding the ramifications of death. Heck, I’m not sure we ever understand the ramifications of death. Soldiers will tell you they only learn it through war. Nurses will say they only learn it on the job.

This wasn’t about understanding death. It was about understanding murder. And a 12-year-old is plenty old enough to know that murder is wrong, that it is illegal, that it is evil at its most vicious. If the 12-year-old doesn’t know that – and he doesn’t have a learning disability – then his parents did a pretty awful job.

Which brings us, naturally, to the parents. It was Harris’ father who ultimately turned him in to the police. But what about before that? Where was the dad in keeping his son off the street after midnight? Where was he in keeping his son away from guns?

How much guilt should the parents bear if a shooter is too young to accept the full punishment of his actions? Justice matters

And then there’s the victim. Trisha Babcock was, by most accounts, a smiling young woman who did nothing more than sit in a car at the wrong time. But nothing we do to Harris will bring Babcock back.

On the other hand, when victims’ families cry for justice, they should not be dismissed as angry, upset or grieving. Justice matters. You can’t just shrug and say, “Too bad your daughter got murdered by a 12-year-old. Maybe if the killer were older …”

Babcock’s family has every right to expect her death to be acknowledged and balanced with severe punishment. It wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t a tree falling or a bolt of lightning hitting. It was murder.

So what do you do? If you treat Harris as an adult, he might go away for the rest of his life. If you treat him as a juvenile, or even use the blended sentence option, he still will spend his formative years in the company of criminals. Does he have much chance of emerging as a solid citizen? Look how quickly Nathaniel Abraham, who killed a man when he was 11, was back in prison after being set free at 21.

So add it all up. You have a kid who did or didn’t realize what he was doing, spending the rest of his adolescence or the rest of his life locked up with other criminals, and costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars every year.

What do you do? All we really know is that if a kid is out after midnight, carrying a gun, thinking about robbery, by the time he pulls the trigger, it already is too late.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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