by | Feb 25, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Eleven years old.

I was in the fifth grade. I wore black sneakers. I rode a Sting-Ray bicycle. I climbed trees with friends. I had never kissed a girl. I ate Cocoa Puffs for breakfast. That summer I went to sleepaway camp and a man landed on the moon. When I got home, I built a plastic model of Apollo 11 and kept it in my bedroom.

Eleven years old. I have been thinking about how young that is, in light of arguments last week over how old it is.

The first case concerned a boy named Shawn Hornbeck. When he was 11, he was kidnapped in Missouri. For four years, his parents, relatives, neighbors and authorities searched for him and prayed for him.

Then, 10 days ago, Shawn and another young boy were found in the apartment of a 41-year-old man, who has since been charged with kidnapping. The man lived only 50 miles from where Shawn had gone missing. He reportedly had been passing Shawn off as his son. The boy had been seen by neighbors riding his bicycle, playing with friends, seeming, they said, pretty normal.

When Shawn, now 15, was returned to his rightful family, they both cried tears of joy. His mother, on television, called it “a miracle.”

But soon after, the questions arose: Why didn’t the boy speak up sooner? Why didn’t he try to escape? Why didn’t he make a phone call – since he supposedly had access to phones? Why didn’t he just, at some point, walk away?

After all, he was 11 when he was taken. That’s old enough to know better, isn’t it?

The youngest murderer

At the same time Shawn Hornbeck was in the news, so was Nathaniel Abraham. He also made headlines when he was 11. Abraham was that age when fired a .22-caliber shotgun and killed Ronnie Greene Jr., 18, outside a Pontiac convenience store. Abraham, at the time, said he was firing at trees. Nonetheless, he became the youngest person convicted of murder in the United States. He was convicted as an adult, but sentenced as a juvenile, meaning he could be held only until his 21st birthday.

He turned 21 last week.

He was released.

And old questions were heard anew. Why was Nathaniel Abraham tried as a juvenile? He was 11, wasn’t he? He knew right from wrong, didn’t he? He’d had a rap sheet of minor scuffles with the law, didn’t he? How could he be considered a child when he so cold-bloodedly killed a man?

Ronnie Greene’s sister, Nichole Edwards, spoke to me about Abraham’s release.

“I don’t feel that he has been rehabilitated,” she said. “… When he got sentenced, I felt he should have got the blended sentence”- adult and juvenile -“so today, instead of setting him free … a judge would have looked back and seen if he’d progressed any. …

“My brother was only 18. He didn’t have a chance. Look at what” Abraham’s family “is gaining today. We have nothing to look forward to. The only thing I can do is go to the cemetery and look down on my brother’s plot.”

The variables of age

So how old – or how young – is age 11? In the Shawn Hornbeck case, was he old enough to have taken action? Many claim that once a child is abducted, he can be frightened, forced or even brainwashed into silence. It is hard to know, they say, how a developing mind absorbs such a horrific situation.

The same case is made by those who feel Nathaniel Abraham was too young to fully comprehend the consequences of his actions. An 11-year-old may know a gun can kill, he may know killing is bad, but he may not fully comprehend how he becomes a killer by pulling the trigger.

Personally? Part of me wants to side with those who say, come on, who’s kidding who here? By 11, you know not to be firing guns – at trees or anything else – and by 11 you know, if you’re abducted, that if you have enough freedom to ride a bike or play unsupervised, you have enough freedom to call home collect.

But then I remember the year I turned 11. I remember playing in tree houses and having a high, squeaky voice. I remember, occasionally, still watching cartoons on television.

And maybe because I must use the word “remember,” I have forgotten how young 11 really is.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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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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