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February 28, 2010

"Second chance for killer kids?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this lengthy article in today's Detroit Free Press.  Here is how the piece gets started:

Dontez Tillman and Thomas McCloud were 14-year-old middle schoolers in Pontiac in the summer of 2008. Neither was old enough to drive, drink, nor apply for a video store membership.

Today, Tillman and McCloud are serving mandatory life in a Lapeer prison, convicted as adults of first-degree murder in November for the beating deaths of two homeless men over three days with older teens. “I screwed up my life,” McCloud told the Free Press in a prison interview. “I wish I could take it all back, that I never left the house that day.”

Their case brings into focus Michigan’s position in a national debate over how to handle young killers.  The state has 352 prisoners serving mandatory life sentences for crimes committed while they were juveniles — the second-highest number in the world, behind Pennsylvania at 444.

Legislators and the U.S. Supreme Court are rethinking the idea of sending teens away to prison forever.  Michigan is among 12 states where legislation has been introduced that would ban the practice, or at least give judges some discretion.  Texas and Colorado in recent years have banned mandatory life for juveniles.

But Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, whose office tried Tillman and McCloud, said the boys are exactly where they belong. “These are gut-wrenching, soul-searching determinations,” she said. As the debate continues, Tillman, now 15, and McCloud, now 16, spend their days in a juvenile unit at the Thumb Correctional Facility, an adult prison in Lapeer. At age 21, they will be transferred to the state’s adult prison population to spend the rest of their lives.

It is important to note that the two cases from Florida currently before the Supreme Court, Graham and Sullivan, involve juveniles sentenced to LWOP without having cause a death.  Consequently, unless the Supreme Court issues a very constitutional broad ruling in those cases, it is unlikely that middle schoolers like Tillman and McCloud will have their fates directly by these SCOTUS ruling.

It is also interesting to note that the two states noted in this article as having the largest number of mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders are Michigan (which has never had the death penalty) and Pennsylvania (which functionally does not have an operating death penalty).  Meanwhile, the national leader in use of the death penalty, Texas, has eliminated mandatory life for juveniles.  These realities reinforce my sense that there can often be an inverse relationship between use of the death penalty for the worst murderers and use of other extreme punishments for less culpable offenders.

February 28, 2010 at 02:14 PM | Permalink


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A 14 year-old knows full well that it's wrong to beat to death a person you don't know and whose only sin was existing when you and your gang buddies were out for your malevolent version of "kicks."

By the time a person is 14, his conscience and judgment are developed well past the point of knowing to refrain from random murder. When you do it not once but twice, as this killer did, you've more than earned your fate.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Feb 28, 2010 4:35:54 PM

"By the time a person is 14, his conscience and judgment are developed well past the point of knowing to refrain from random murder."

I'm not going to comment on the truthiness of that statement. Rather, I'll simply note that while a 14 year old is old enough to take responsibility for a killing they aren't old enough to consent to sex.

odd, that.

Posted by: Daniel | Feb 28, 2010 6:34:08 PM

Daniel, that comment is just plain dumb. There is a difference between a law designed to protect children from predation and the ability to find them culpable for a killing. By your logic, a 14 year old killer (I assume you don't think consent laws should be changed.) should simply be let go--as he's not responsible. Odd that.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 28, 2010 8:21:51 PM

Actually Bill, I do think consent laws need to be changed. As I psychologist, I'd take pedophilia and rip right it right out of the DSM. There is no psychological basis for treating pedophilia as an illness.

Posted by: Daniel | Feb 28, 2010 9:34:11 PM

Saying that pedophilia is not a mental illness doesn't tell us why the age of consent should be changed. Not whatsoever.

Posted by: Steve | Feb 28, 2010 11:18:41 PM

"should simply be let go--as he's not responsible."

Time for one of my half-baked book reports.

"An important series of studies was carried out by Elizabeth Loftus of the University of Washington, who was interested in the accuracy of witnesses' courtroom testimonies. Subjects were shown videotapes and asked leading questions about the content. If shown two cars that barely scraped each other, one group of subjects might be asked, "How fast were the cars going when they scraped each other?" and another group would be asked, "How fast were the cars going when they smashed each other?" Such one-word substitutions caused dramatic differences in the eyewitnesses' estimates of the speeds of the two vehicles. Then Loftus brought the subjects back, sometimes up to a week later, and asked, "How much broken glass did you see?" (There really was no broken glass.) The subjects who were asked the question with the word smashed in it were more likely to report "remembering" broken glass in the video. Their memory of what they actually saw had been reconstructed on the basis of a simple question the experimenter had asked a week earlier." [Levitin, Daniel J., This is Your Brain on Music, p 136.

The moral of the story is beware of loaded comments like "should simply be let go" and straw men and such.

Posted by: George | Mar 1, 2010 12:26:50 AM

The state of Michigan is one of the poorest states in the country when one assesses their revenues and expenditures. Let them pay for these LWOP cases. For life. They can not afford it. California is showing the Way.

Posted by: mpb | Mar 1, 2010 3:59:08 AM

Bill and others seem to be arguing that 14-year-olds should be accountable for the people they kill.

But who's arguing that they shouldn't?

Even if LWOP for 14-year-olds were to end tomorrow, wouldn't young killers still be facing long, long, long person terms?

The question seems to be whether young teen-age killers should be given any hope, albeit slim, of ever getting out of prison...which is an entirely different question than whether they deseve a "second chance."

Posted by: John K | Mar 1, 2010 9:42:18 AM

At the age of 14, one cannot marry, drive, buy alcohol or cigarettes, consent to sex, enter into contracts, join the army, or open a bank account. I suspect that Bill Otis and Federalist are not in favor of ending any of those restrictions.

Yet, when they commit a crime, Federalist and Bill Otis believe that they ought to be treated just like 21-year-olds. Only in that one instance, and no other. I wonder why.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Mar 1, 2010 11:20:34 AM

Steve. That's true. But wasn't my point. I was merely pointing out to Bill his assumption was wrong, not getting into an discussion about what the proper age of consent *should* be.

My original point was well repeated by Marc above. Namely, that there is a great deal of inconsistency in how we deal with the idea of "consent" in the law. 14 year olds can consent to some things but not to others and I have yet to hear of any rational justification for why that is the case.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 1, 2010 1:09:08 PM

Marc Shepherd and Daniel --

What I said was: "By the time a person is 14, his conscience and judgment are developed well past the point of knowing to refrain from random murder."

Do you maintain that statement is false? If so, on what basis? How do you explain the fact that 99.999% of 14 year-olds do, in fact, refrain from murder no matter how angry or irresponsible they otherwise may be?

If, on the other hand my proposition is true, then the age of consent for sex and smoking, etc. is irrelevant to this or similar murder cases.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 1, 2010 7:23:33 PM


I'm not sure the data you offer in your final paragraph really supports your theory very persuasively. Aside from the fact that one might dispute that Texas reserves DP for the worst of the worst (law of parties, etc.), one might look at a state like Florida, which has a large death row and a hugely disproportionate share of juvenile LWOPs (although many/most were not mandatory), as a counter example. And there are plenty of states that have no DP and also more progressive/lenient/rehabilitation-oriented treatment of juvenile offenders. I'm not sure there is any "relationship" that is meaningful between the two sets of facts. If anything, I think the explanation for Michigan and Pennsylvania is demographic in nature. Pennsylvania and Michigan are Democratic-leaning states with a traditional mix of urban, liberal democrats (generally anti-DP), and blue-collar, union democrats (generally more "law and order" oriented), not to mention many Catholic Republicans and independents (more likely anti-DP, even if "law and order" oriented), so it is not that surprising that you'd end up with hybrid, tough-on-crime-but-no-DP regimes there. I don't think it has anything to do with an inherent, logical relationship between imposing the DP and exercising some leniency on juveniles. Sure, the two facts can coexist in one state, but I don't see evidence of a causal relationship. Or at least I am awaiting any real evidence on that point. It seems more like seizing on convenient, isolated facts to support a preexisting theory.

Posted by: Observer | Mar 2, 2010 11:08:21 AM

Its sounds very bad to hear that a 14 year old has done such a sin. Do a child at this age knows full well that it's wrong to beat to death a person you don't know. By the time a person is 14, his conscience and judgment are not developed well past the point of knowing to refrain from random murder. So i think he should be given a chance and be let free so that he won't do such kind of act again in his whole life.

Posted by: Killers ( 2010 ) | Jun 21, 2010 7:19:09 AM

It is really shocking news for me when I know that A 14 year child to beat to death a person after knowing everything. Why did he take this step ? What are the reasons behind it.. I would like to know everything behind this incident.

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