by | Jan 16, 2000 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The judge looked the killer in the eye. The killer was 13 years old.

The judge said, “You have done the worst thing a human being can possibly do.” The judge also said, “We have failed you.”

The killer was led away in cuffs. He looked up at his lawyer and said, “What happened?”

The killer was 13 years old.

The victim is still dead.

The problem with the Nathaniel Abraham case, which has vexed judges, lawyers, police, parents, teachers, journalists and pretty much anyone who has followed it, is that it looks different as you walk around it.

If you stand in front of Ronnie Greene Jr.’s dead body, you see a victim who did nothing wrong, an 18-year-old who came out of a store and took a bullet in the head.

If you stand over Nathaniel Abraham when he was 11 years old, you see a kid with a gun who was either shooting at trees or shooting at Greene.

If you sit in the kitchen of Nathaniel’s mother, you see a woman who should have had better control of her child. If you watch her repeatedly call the police, you see a woman who sought help for her out-of-control son and was turned away by the system.

If you stand over the judge’s shoulder as he sentences Nathaniel to juvenile detention, meaning he goes free when he is 21 — ignoring pleas to sentence Nathaniel as an adult — then you either see a compassionate man or another handcuffed administrator.

And if you leave the courtroom with Ronnie Greene’s family, you either see justice or a travesty.

Intent was the issue

This is the problem when you try to prove intent, and intent is all this case was about. The prosecution insisted Nathaniel knew what he was doing when he pulled that trigger. The defense disagrees, and lawyer Geoffrey Fieger doggedly insists that Nathaniel is mentally a 6-year-old who doesn’t have a clue as to what he did or what it all means. “Have you ever talked to a 6-year-old?” he keeps saying.

The truth is, talking doesn’t make a difference. We will never know what was in this kid’s head. A jury found him guilty of second-degree murder. He has been held for 2 1/2 years. And now he will be sent to the W.J. Maxey Training School — a place where he supposedly will grow, learn and change.

A place where a social worker was once killed.

The cynics say Nathaniel Abraham is going to live among other young criminals, where his murder rap will be a symbol of accomplishment, where the only habits he will pick up will be bad ones, where he might emerge even more violent than he is now, and yet, at age 21, he will be free no matter what.

And maybe all that is true. But there have already been two deaths in this case — the death of Ronnie Greene, and the death of Nathaniel’s childhood. We can’t afford a third death.

We can’t afford the death of hope.

The child is still forming

When Judge Eugene Moore issued his sentence, he admitted it “may not seem enough” to some. But he also said, “If we are committed to preventing future criminal behavior, we will use our resources to rehabilitate him.”

And if you don’t hold out at least a shred of hope for this, you might as well lock up every kid who shows a violent tendency.

The fact is, there is a difference between a child and an adult. The difference is that the child is still forming. Which means he can, with luck, be reached. And although I have no illusions about our penal system, the challenge at this point is, quite frankly, not on Nathaniel; it’s on us.

It’s on the rehab workers, the politicians who fund them, the administrators who oversee them. This isn’t “Oz,” the gruesome TV series about imagined prison life. These are 12-year-olds, 13-year-olds. If these kids emerge worse from juvenile detention, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t be saved, it means we’re not doing it right.

Nathaniel is paying for his crime — with his childhood and adolescence. If he gets out at 21 and commits a crime, there should be no end to his punishment
— or our shame.

But if he emerges and never does another thing wrong, if he actually leads a decent life, something very important will have been saved. We can only hope.

And if hope is useless, what’s left?

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

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.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!