Minors commit murder

Minors commit murder

In this era of sophisticated brain research, should they be charged and tried as adults?

Pioneer Press

James Lundquist remembers when he first realized the horror of taking another person's life.

It happened when he turned 22 — a year older than the woman he fatally shot through the window of a moving car in St. Paul.

Scott Tomlinson fondly wears his sister's initials tattooed on his right arm. A coroner ruled she died of strangulation after the two wrestled over a TV remote control in their West St. Paul home.

The men share two things in common with Jason McLaughlin, who gunned down fellow students inside his Cold Spring, Minn., school. They, too, were juveniles when charged with murder. And both were charged as adults in Minnesota courts.

A judge last month gave McLaughlin a life sentence and a consecutive 12-year-prison term for killing two schoolmates at Rocori High School when he was 15. He will be at least 55 when eligible for release.

His case captured the public eye at a time when adolescent brain research suggests minors should be less accountable for their crimes than adults. The findings colored a U.S. Supreme Court decision this year to rule the death penalty for minors unconstitutional.

"One of the factors was the teen brain is not a mature brain," says David Walsh, founder of the Minneapolis-based Institute on Media and the Family and author of the research-based book "Why Do They Act That Way?" (2004).

Recent studies at the National Institute of Mental Health have reversed a long-held theory the adolescent brain is fully developed by age 14. Neuro-imaging techniques show the brain's prefrontal cortex, which regulates impulse control and reasoning, may not completely mature until age 20 or older.

"There is some research showing an adolescent brain is less apt or able than adults to think ahead, plan and anticipate consequences of their actions," explains Laurence Steinberg, who heads an ongoing national study fueled by the brain studies. "The extension of this could be that kids are less likely to plan anything, including crimes."

As awareness of the brain research has spread, David Walsh often fields questions from academia, law enforcement and the general public.

"The question they ask is, 'Should this cause us to rethink how we handle juveniles in the corrections system?' "


The juvenile justice system is under escalating attack, says Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice.

On one side, observers contend the system isn't tough enough on juvenile offenders. On the other, critics say it ignores children's individual needs and fails to fulfill a promise to rehabilitate.

"This is the first study ever to look at these kids as kids and not just little criminals," he says of the research network. "Our goal is to examine what the appropriate response is to serious juvenile offending."

The research is focused on what happens to minors entering the juvenile justice system, their competency to defend themselves in court and what it takes to rehabilitate young offenders.

The teen brain's immaturity amounts to a double-whammy for youths with undiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses who become dangerous, says Dr. E. Torrey Fuller, president of the Arlington, Va.-based national nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center.

Many states, including Minnesota and Wisconsin, have passed laws making it easier to try minors as adults. That shift in the mid-1990s reflects a growing effort to get tough on crime.

But MacArthur Foundation statistics now indicate that trying juveniles as adults may not ultimately keep our streets and neighborhoods any safer.

While minors tried as adults end up in adult prisons, offenders are much more likely to get rehabilitative services in juvenile programs, says Kathleen Heide, a University of South Florida criminologist. She cites success rates as high as 85 percent with in-depth treatment addressing underlying causes of violence.

In her 1998 book, "Young Killers: The Challenge of Juvenile Homicide," Heide attributes heightened teen-age crime to a violence-saturated culture and growing access to alcohol, drugs and guns. She also zeroes in on child abuse and neglect, lack of positive role models and growing poverty.

"(There is) a feeling among youths for these reasons and their own personality makeup that they have little or nothing left to lose," she says.


In Minnesota, a 1995 law dictates that 16- and 17-year-olds charged with serious violent crimes are automatically tried as adults. For 14- and 15-year-olds, a judicial waiver hearing is required. In Wisconsin, children as young as 10 can be tried as adults.

Some advocates for change, such as University of Minnesota law professor Barry Feld, are pushing for shorter sentences for juveniles than for adults convicted of similar crimes.

Another camp is eager to change laws that make a mental-illness defense virtually impossible in many states. Jails and prisons have become the first line of psychiatric treatment for offenders in this country, experts say. Quality of treatment varies widely, says Torrey of the Treatment Advocacy Center.

The way laws are written isn't the only factor, he says. Jurors and judges often play a role. "There's an attitude in some cases of, 'This teen looks dangerous. Locking him up is the answer whether he's mentally ill or not.' "

The brain findings have spurred Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, to introduce legislative bills this year and last to replace a strict mental-illness defense that is law in Minnesota and 24 other states.

The controversial M'Naghten rule poses a two-pronged question: Did the defendant know what he was doing? And did he know it was wrong? If answers to both of those questions appear to be yes, a defendant is considered sane and responsible for his or her crime.

The 162-year-old test of sanity has frustrated many defense attorneys. One is Daniel Eller, who argued in court last month that Jason McLaughlin suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and didn't know right from wrong. A judge rejected his mental-illness defense, concluding McLaughlin knew he was committing a moral wrong.

Another is Terry Walters, the defense attorney for David Brom, who was 16 in 1988 when he axed his parents and two younger siblings to death in their Rochester home. Despite hearing testimony citing multiple personalities and hallucinations of being a werewolf, a jury determined Brom, too, understood what he was doing was wrong.

"Under Minnesota's rigid law, where everything is black or white, you're either completely M'Naghten insane or you're competent," Walters told a reporter after the trial.

At age 33, Brom is still serving the first of three life sentences at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater, where he works building squirrel houses and has no chance of parole until at least age 70. He has tutored other inmates and worked on a prison newspaper.


Any push for defendants' rights is a tough sell in the current tough-on-crime era, Greiling says.

Along with tougher sentencing for many youths, rehabilitation programs and educational opportunities in adult prisons have dwindled. "We're not into rehabilitation. We're into punishment," she says. "What most people forget is that most prison inmates will get out some day."

Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom is among vocal proponents of a tough-on-crime agenda. He defends the M'Naghten rule for its clarity and supports trying 14- to 17-year-olds who commit serious violent crimes as adults in the interest of public safety.

The flip side, he says, is the release from prison last month of 21-year-old Mitchell Johnson, a Minnesota native tried and convicted in an Arkansas juvenile court at age 13 of helping to shoot five people in a schoolyard rampage.

"Is that adequate?" Backstrom asks. "I think not."

Greiling says she'll continue pushing to replace the M'Naghten rule and to improve rehabilitation and educational opportunities in Minnesota prisons.

But is there an outcry to change the juvenile justice system in Minnesota?

"No, not at all," she says. "But there is the Jason McLaughlin case. And that brings interest to the issue."

Kay Harvey can be reached at kharvey@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5468.


200,000 — number of minors across the country tried and sentenced each year as adults

336 — number of inmates in Minnesota prisons tried and sentenced as adults for crimes committed before age 18

41 — number of states where minors can be sentenced to life without parole