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History Professor Reflects On How the US Justice System Deals with Youthful Murderers - 2003-12-07

In the wake of a shooting spree at a high school a few years ago, a student at Cornell University wondered whether "boy murderers" are a contemporary phenomenon. This simple question prompted his history professor to begin collecting and researching about a hundred cases. The story of Charley Miller emerged as the answer: youthful homicide is neither unique, nor new to our era, and the methods of administering justice to such children have not significantly changed.

Born in the 1870s in New York to German immigrant parents, Charley Miller was orphaned at the age of six along with his sister and two brothers. While his siblings were successfully placed with foster families, Charley grew up in an orphanage. By the age of 14 he was riding the rails alone under his nickname "Kansas Charley," looking for work and adventure. He found both. When he was 15, he shot and killed two other young men in a Union Pacific boxcar heading for Wyoming.

"After this horrific crime, Charley Miller went back to Kansas and turned himself in," says Cornell history professor Joan Jacob Brumberg. She spent four years conducting detective work through 19th century documents and newspaper accounts about Charley's life and trial. She methodically traced his every step, even visiting the jail where he spent his last months.

"What happened in the jail was that the sheriff turned him over to a local newspaper editor who took his confession," she said. "The newspaper's man also probably put some words in his mouth about his motivation. And when he was in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on trial, there were few restrictions in those days on access to young defendants, so there were literally newspaper people who hang out in the jail talking to him, interviewing him. Some of that worked to his benefit, but most of it did not."

Ironically, according to Professor Brumberg, his time in jail provided Charley with a final opportunity to rest, relax and make friends.

"In jail, he had books to read, he had papers to draw on, and he had time to compose songs and poetry," she explains. "He made friends with the sheriff and some of the jailers. He got more from those folks in terms of support and nurture than he had ever gotten from anybody else at the very end of his life."

Charley Miller was executed on April 22, 1892, at the age of seventeen.

In her book, Kansas Charley: The Story of a 19th-Century Boy Murderer, Professor Brumberg focuses on this historic case to illuminate the issues that surround juvenile justice today. She says despite the passage of more than a century, young murderers still tend to be social outcasts with feelings of hurt and resentment. She finds a lot of similarities between Kansas Charley and Lee Boyd (John) Malvo, the teenager now on trial for murder in the horrific killing spree that terrorized the Washington D.C, area a year ago.

"First, they are both 'thrown away' kids in the sense that they came from families we'd, in one way or another classify as dysfunctional; to use the contemporary term, not a lot of love, not a lot of nurturing," she explains. "Both boys chose nicknames. Boyd Malvo liked to call himself John, in imitation of his surrogate father who probably masterminded the entire unfortunate and horrendous adventure in the killing mobile. Charley Miller chose the name of Kansas Charley because he, too, was searching for an identity. That name was after his brother, the one person whom he really was close to, who lived in Kansas."

Over the past two decades, the death penalty for juvenile offenders has been eliminated in every nation in the world, except a handful, including the United States. In 1900, eight years after Charley Miller was executed, more than twenty states allowed capital punishment for minors. That number is lower today, but Victor Streib says young offenders are still sentenced to die. Since 1984, the Ohio Northern University law professor has issued a periodic report on juvenile death penalty trends in America.

"In terms of juvenile death sentences, Texas is by far the leader in the number of juveniles sentenced to death and in the number of juveniles who actually executed," he says. "Of all those sentenced to death, only a fourth are ever executed; most of them are never finally executed. There are just a few states that are still sentencing juveniles to death. Those sentences have gone down. We used to have 10, 12 or 14 juvenile death sentences a year, then a few years ago, it went down to seven a year and in the last year we only had one death sentence."

Americans are divided on the question of putting juveniles to death, and teenagers have their own ideas about effective punishment. "You could do a lot of stuff. First you should have him psychoanalyzed just to see exactly what motivated him. You should put him in prison or make him do some kind of service. You should work to have him realize what he did as something wrong," says a teenager. Another one says, "I'm against death penalty because it's not going to teach him anything. He should at least learn what's right." For another teenager, "Punishment is not really the way to go with cases like these. It should be more of rehabilitation process."

Last year, four Supreme Court justices called the juvenile death penalty a "shameful practice" and "a relic of the past." Kansas Charley's story reflects a long tradition in American society of dealing harshly, and according to Joan Jacob Brumberg, unjustly with violent youthful offenders.