Trying Children as Adults Is Wrong

Erin Caffey, who was tried as an adult in the slayings of her own family.

Perhaps the most odious thing about our criminal justice system, aside from the continued existence of the death penalty, is that we charge minors as adults all of the time, including so we can then kill them, although some states since the 1970s did allow those 16 or 17 years of age to be put to death. The Supreme Court officially put that to bed with the Roper decision in 2005, ending children from being put to death for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18. There has been movement, including in neighboring Kentucky, to expand the age to 21, given new information about adolescent brains.

As a society, we’ve determined in a myriad of ways that someone under the age of 18 is not legally an adult because they can’t function with the same brain capacity and decision-making as adults. That means at the age of 17 or younger, they can’t partake in certain activities. At times, that can be incoherent when you consider that someone 17 who has a parent sign for them can go off to boot camp and die in a war for the country, but is still four years away from being able to drink a sip of alcohol legally.

Nonetheless, the point is, a positive benefit of the last 100 years of society in developed countries is that we came to believe in the protection of children given that they can’t protect themselves or be their own advocates and that further developed into a radical belief relative to the vast majority of our human species’ existence: the idea of a childhood and affording children those childhoods.

However, our legal system, in certain cases, has determined that minors can and should be tried as adults. It makes no sense! You’re either a child or you’re not. Yet, our law carves out these exceptions.

I find it to be the absolute definition of the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishment” clause that we not only will and do try children as adults, but that they can receive multiple life sentences. Are we a society that believes in punitive, forever punishment or are we a society that believes in redemption and rehabilitation? Clearly, we operate as the former right now.

All of this came to mind because I listened to the latest Generation Why podcast concerning the Erin Caffey case. It’s horrific. She conspired with her then-boyfriend, Charlie Wilkinson and some of his friends, to kill her whole family, including her mother and father and two younger brothers, Matthew (13-years-old) and Tyler (8-years-old).

Erin was only 16 at the time. She was tried as an adult and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, plus 25 years. She will be eligible for parole after serving about 40 years of her sentence, or when she’s about 57-years-old.

The murders are horrific. She apparently resented her Christian parents for trying to break her up with Charlie. Okay, it’s still awful to want to kill your parents over that, although that speaks to her adolescent brain, but why the younger brothers? I can’t fathom that depravity.

And yet. I do not think she should have been tried as an adult and I do not think anyone associated with the case should have faced the death penalty. One of the hosts on the podcast seems to carve out a “worst of the worst” exception for the death penalty, which means he favors the death penalty. Yuck.

The father, Terry, miraculously survived being shot multiple times and escaped the house before they set it ablaze. He then crawled 400 yards to the neighbor’s house to get help. He put it better than I could regarding the death penalty.

“My heart tells me there have been enough deaths,” he wrote in a letter to the Rains County district attorney, Robert Vititow. “I want them, in this lifetime, to have a chance for remorse and to come to a place of repentance for what they have done. Killing them will not bring my family back.”

But you also don’t need to be religious, like Terry, to be firmly opposed to the death penalty. I’m opposed to killing on moral grounds, first and foremost. As a secondary issue, I’m opposed to the imperfect state comprised of imperfect beings centrally planning killings.

Yes, even for someone like Erin Caffey.

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