Debate 6/5: Does the punishment fit the crime?

O n May 18, 2018, 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis opened fire at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas. Ten people were killed; 10 more injured. Pagourtzis was arrested the same afternoon, and booked into Galveston County Jail on one charge of capital murder of multiple persons and one charge of aggravated assault against a […]

The Sante Fe, Texas, shooter is ineligible for the death penalty. Should he be?

Q: Should rules governing when a person can be tried as an “adult”
in murder cases be changed?

By Sarah Sidlow

On May 18, 2018, 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis opened fire at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas. Ten people were killed; 10 more injured. Pagourtzis was arrested the same afternoon, and booked into Galveston County Jail on one charge of capital murder of multiple persons and one charge of aggravated assault against a
public servant.

Yet, even though the age of criminal responsibility in Texas is 17, and even though Texas “leads the nation in the number of executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976” (according to the criminal justice department’s website), Pagourtzis won’t be sentenced to death.

Give me the details
A capital felony is grounds for either the death penalty or life imprisonment. According to the Texas Penal Code, if an individual under the age of 18 is convicted of a capital felony, it is mandatory that they be punished with life in prison.

There’s also Supreme Court precedent that has deemed the execution of minors to be cruel and unusual punishment—therefore unconstitutional under the
Eighth Amendment.

If Pagourtzis is convicted of capital murder, he will be eligible for parole after serving 40 years. A non-capital murder charge would carry a sentence of 30 years without parole.

It’s likely that the state will seek multiple life sentences against Pagourtzis.

One of the biggest arguments against trying minors as adults is that doing so sends a message of “lost hope.” That is, by giving juveniles extremely hard sentences, it gives the impression that there is no hope of them ever becoming anything but a convict. For those who believe the purpose of the criminal justice system is to reform bad behavior, the idea of trying juveniles as adults is counterproductive.

Another key argument has to do with the fact that sentencing a teenager as an adult means putting him in a prison with other bigger, stronger and more powerful criminals, putting someone like Pagourtzis at risk for injury while serving his sentence.

What a difference a year makes
Many argue that, in this case, the law may be protecting the criminal over his victims. They say that sometimes, it’s important to look at the nature of the crime, rather than the perpetrator’s age. If Pagourtzis was capable of knowingly taking 10 lives, they argue, don’t the victims’ families deserve retribution?

Moreover, some argue, juvenile crime—including violent crime—is on the rise. And the most recent rash of public mass shootings can have the devastating effect of inspiring copycats. Perhaps, they argue, it’s equally important to send a message about the consequences of extreme violence.

Moreover, they say, it’s only one year. Perhaps this case, too, will send a message to future copycats: commit the crime before your 18th birthday, and you’ll live to see your 60th in the sunshine.

The state of Texas executed 13 juveniles before the 2005 Supreme Court decision that determined it to be cruel and unusual punishment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Q: Should rules governing when a person can be tried as an “adult” in murder cases be changed?


No more eye for an eye

Keep America’s ideals intact

By Patrick Bittner

Throughout the history of the human race, the idea that a punishment could be so severe as to cost the offender his or her life came about in nearly every society in every continent on earth. But where the differentiations have occurred comes not from the crimes committed, but from the age and often times the simple location of the offender. Until 2005, the United States allowed the death penalty for minors, and since 1985, Texas led the nation with 13 individuals put to death for crimes they committed while underage. And while the pure evilness and terror that the recent school violence in that state has shown us, it is unacceptable to punish a person so young with the death penalty. To match the horror and terror of the act with an equally horrible act is truly belittling to the American idea and experience.

Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the United States of America. A strange list indeed with seemingly few similarities. We have fought openly or covertly with nearly every idea of every country on that list. We call them uncivilized and backward. We make fun of their laws, perhaps because we don’t understand them, such as the ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia. Yet we are among them when it comes to the death penalty for minors. Since 1990, only these seven countries have legally executed individuals who committed crimes while under the age of 18. And while we may think of ourselves as so much more advanced, understanding, and tolerant than these countries, we truly are among equals where taking life for crimes is concerned. This is unacceptable.

Luckily, in 2005, nearly two years after the last such execution in Texas, the Supreme Court took up a case, Roper v. Simmons, and ultimately decided that executing citizens who were minors at the time of their crime was a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment. And while many people feel this was a poor decision on the part of the Court, especially in Texas where some 29 inmates were taken off death row, it was not. Removing the threat of the death penalty for minors has not increased the rates of applicable crimes in those states where it was previously legal. In general, capital punishment is not a viable deterrent for stopping violent crimes. The ability of the State to fairly dole out punishments is a nearly universally agreed-upon concept, with the exception being the extremity of capital punishment. The Supreme Court was effective, as well as both legally and morally justified in its rebuke of the state sponsored violence policy that was in effect historically. Texas, like the 22 other states that allow by state law the death penalty for those under 18, must face the new reality that the historic, and arguably barbaric, way of doing things is no longer acceptable.

As with any situation, extreme conditions bring out the most passion in people. When a gunman walks into a public place and commits murder, it is understandable that sufficient punishment and retribution is wanted and often warranted. However, what is blatantly clear is that dropping to the level of the criminal is not the way to go about this. Texas has gone through a terrible situation recently and understandably a reaction is wanted and truly needed. But to sentence a child, an individual who is not fully formed mentally, as you would an adult who has time and experience on their side is unacceptable. And while this is not a gun debate, or a mental health debate, or a politics debate, those all contribute to the situation, making it even less clear and concise. But what is a truly clear and logical conclusion is that the death penalty, especially among those who were underage at the time of the crime, is wrong, broken, ineffective, and perhaps most importantly, un-American. This country was founded on the idea that freedom and justice could exist equally and that one did not trump the other. Taking away the freedom to even live is not a just act, it is a bygone idea from a time where such a threat would deter a criminal act. That is no longer the case, as those among us who commit crimes are more often than not forgotten members of society who could have been spared a life of both crime and imprisonment if we had simply reached out to them.


One-size-fits-all isn’t the answer

Adult punishments for adult crimes is justice

By Missy Mae Walters

Most of us are taught at a young age that for every action, there is a reaction or a consequence. This lesson seems almost non-existent in today’s society. As a result of this failure, we must actually have a conversation about whether the rules of justice should be bent to accommodate those less fortunate who fail to grasp this very
simple principle.

My earliest memory of this basic lesson was at the ripe young age of five. While sitting in my grandmother’s laundry room, I was told not to touch the iron because it would burn me. Well, being the stinker I was at that age, I chose to stick my hand on the iron and as a result, I now have a scar that serves as a reminder of why you shouldn’t touch an iron when it is hot. In addition this very basic example was literally burned into me (no pun intended).

The issue of discussion today is when lessons are not taught and those under 18 find themselves in serious legal trouble, should the severity of the crime be considered when deciding if the young person will be charged as a juvenile or an adult.

There are many pundits in our world who believe the practice of charging juveniles as adults, despite the severity of the crime, should never be a consideration. I challenge those pundits to prove that it is never appropriate to charge a juvenile as an adult. I can think of some pretty heinous crimes committed by juveniles where not being charged as an adult is unfathomable.

Most of us, I believe, could agree that those pundits would be hard-pressed to defend 17-year-old Santa Fe, TX, high school shooter Dimitrios Pagourtzis, who orchestrated the premeditated murder of 10 classmates he disliked. Texas law permits juveniles 14 and older who have committed felony offenses to be transferred by a juvenile judge to adult criminal court for trial and punishment. This same process is allowed in the State of Ohio, but for offenders age 17.

The National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) provides a fascinating map outlining the processes state-by-state. In 45 states, the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction is age 17. Five states—Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin—officially draw the juvenile/adult line at age 16.

Pagourtzis, despite being charged as an adult for capital murder, cannot be sentenced to death. Unfortunately for the families, this is due to the 2005 decision of Roper v. Simmons and ensures those families never really receive the justice they deserve. In this case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the execution of people who were under 18 at the time of their crimes violates the federal constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments.

What a shame that we must find a balance between the victims’ families’ rights and an appropriate sentence for an offender just because of their age. Let’s just be honest here—sociopaths do not magically become sociopaths when they cross the line at 18. Most start young and will be a danger to society their entire lives.

According to the United States Department of Justice Juvenile Violent Crime Index, which includes the offenses of murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, in 2016, there were 850 murder and non-negligent manslaughter juvenile arrests made. Overall, law enforcement agencies in the United States made an estimated 856,130 arrests of persons under age 18.

Let’s look at the juvenile justice system here in Montgomery County. In 2016, according to the Montgomery County Juvenile Courts Annual Report, of the 34 motions to charge a minor as an adult, only 14 were granted. Of that total, only 6 of the cases involved juveniles being charged with murder. Overall, there were a total of 2,456 cases the
court handled.

Of those 6 murders in 2016, one hits close to home and involves a crime that occurred in one of Dayton’s safest suburbs. Kettering teen Ronnie Bowers was gunned down by three other juveniles in a Kettering neighborhood following an altercation at Alter Fest. Bowers and a friend, who were trying to avoid the fight, were chased down and Bowers was shot at close range. Days later Bowers succumbed to the wound.

When the names of the three boys were released, I did a search on Facebook. Reviewing the content of their profiles, I could not help but shake my head because these three teenagers who were awaiting arraignment for Bowers’ murder publicly promoted their desire to be gangsters and thugs. I revert back to the value of teaching children about consequences. By the way, two of the three teenagers served time in the local juvenile detention center and are now on probation. Only the one who pulled the trigger is being prosecuted for murder in adult court.

Justice is what individuals and families seek when violent crimes occur. Those families deserve impartiality and equal treatment. As a society, if we take away the option of adult punishment for adult crimes, the achievement of justice is also taken away.

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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