ABC News Internet Ventures, June 24, 1999
The Line Gets Blurrier-- Has Fear of Juvenile Violence Sparked an Overreaction?
By Heather Maher
While most teen-agers are pondering nothing more serious than how to spend their summer vacation, David Zinzo and Justin Schnepp are contemplating the possibility of spending life behind bars.
The two 14-year-old Michigan boys have just been ordered by a judge to stand trial as adults on charges of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. If found guilty, they could get life in prison.
Circuit Court Judge David Nicholson made his decision after pre-trial witnesses testified that the boys had talked about a plan to steal guns, take over their school’s office, summon students to the gym over the public address system, and there, massacre their classmates.
Two other boys, both 13-years-old, have also been charged in the alleged plot, but prosecutors say they will be tried as juveniles.
In at least two important ways, the case is a bellwether; representing America’s tough attitude toward crime committed by juveniles, and its new zero-tolerance policy on school violence.
Idle Chatter or Conspiracy?
Imagination is the only realm in which the plot existed, says the lawyer for Zinzo, one of the 14-year-olds.
Kenneth Lord says his client is “in disbelief” at being charged with a crime. He says the Port Huron middle-school student didn’t realize how serious matters were until police swarmed into the school and started pulling out students for interrogation.
That’s when, “Idle chatter became conspiracy,” says Lord, whose law firm also represents one of the 13-year-olds.
In this electrified post-Littleton era, the case has quickly taken on a life of its own. Local news and police say they’ve found hit lists and school maps with notes written on them.
“We’ve never seen that,” Lord says, adding, “we know that two of the boys in this alleged conspiracy, based on our investigation, never even talked to each other.”
Are Schools Overreacting? Michigan authorities took credit for foiling the plans, allegedly made from May 10 to May 13, after classmates reported it to school officials.
One witness testified that the boys had talked about a “Colorado repeat” — and believed they were referring to the April 20 rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in which 12 students and one teacher were killed by two students who then took their own lives.
Though the judge admitted having a hard time believing the two boys could have done what they allegedly talked about, his decision reflects a new resolve, evident across the nation, to punish not just what happens, but what could have been.
“I doubt [they] could’ve carried it off,” Nicholson said. “But they could have tried. There may have been people killed if they did try to rob that gun store.”
It’s this kind of reaction that Jason Ziedenberg, a policy analyst with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice Center, says is scaring kids and turning American schools into “armed camps.”
“There are dozens and dozens of stories across the country of kids being expelled for minor threats, or for coming up with fantasy letters about attacking a school,” he says.“Kids are kids. We’ve kind of forgotten that.”
Lots more of those kids are being expelled these days. Just in Colorado, where a zero-tolerance on guns is strictly enforced, the number of kids kicked out of public schools rose from 437 to nearly 2,000 in the 1996-97 school year. National expulsions hover around 6,000 for the recent two-year period.
But Ziedenberg says statistics show that an American school child is more likely to be hit by lighting, killed on a school bus or abused by a family member than shot in school.
People “don’t want to hear that,” he says. “They’ve got an image in their mind that every kid in America is a potential school shooter.”
Realizing that, Lord forewarned Zinzo and his family to prepare for the worst, telling them, “You’ve got [Conyers] Georgia, you’ve got Columbine, and a whole push across the country to start treating juveniles as adults. The political climate is ripe.”
Challenging Law to Try Youth as Adults
Though his defense strategy will be to argue that there really was no conspiracy, which would mean challenging evidence that the group went beyond just talking to actually taking actions in furtherance of a crime, Lord says he will first challenge the decision to try his client as an adult.
His case will join three similar appeals already awaiting a ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals. All argue that a state law, passed it 1996 and stiffened in 1998, giving prosecutors sole discretion to decide who is an adult, and who is a juvenile, is unconstitutional.
In one part of Michigan, a 14-year-old can be charged as an adult, and in another, as a youth, says Lord, noting that “the prosecution here is very vigorous.”
The most controversial part of the law is its mandated adult-length sentences for youth, ages 14 and over, who are charged by prosecutors in adult court.
A Shift in Attitude Michigan isn’t the only place cracking down on kids. The federal government is, too.
Anyone doubting that need look no further than the just-passed House and Senate juvenile justice bills, each of which contains language that dramatically raises the consequences for youthful criminals.
The House version of the bill allows juveniles as young as 13 to be tried as adults in federal court. It also mandates lengthy minimum sentences for certain offenses, many related to guns in school.
After passage, one of the bill’s main sponsors, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., issued a statement lauding the tough measures. “We were able to pass legislation that ensures violent juveniles … who use guns will be swiftly and severely punished for breaking the law,” he said.
But the bill goes too far, says Grace Reev, of the Childrens’ Defense Fund. Reev says mandatory minimums are fine for adults, but when it comes to youth violence, judges need to be allowed to make case-by-case determinations. The variables are too many, she insists.
“They are children, [and] children make mistakes,” she says.
“When they have committed a very serious crime, we believe that they should be treated seriously,” Reev adds, “ but if they’re charged as an adult, they’re locked up and that’s it.”
It is a fact not lost on Lord. “If I gamble and lose on behalf of my client,” he says, “he’s going to face a significantly long time in prison.”
No one knows that better than David Zinzo.