The Palm Beach County religious leader discusses his support of Nate Brazill Jr. and the wider cause of helping juveniles facing adult sentencing.
Q. Reverend, how did you get involved in the campaign to stop the practice of prosecuting children as adults?
Q. How large an organization is Under Our Wings?
A. Well, it's a grassroots organization that was organized at the height of the King boys' trial [last year] in Pensacola.
Q. The boys who killed their father?
A. Yes, right, up north. It became apparent that we needed to have an umbrella organization to bring everyone in one organization nationally and develop some type of national strategy [to] address the issues of prosecuting and adjudicating children as adults.
Which brings us to the juvenile death penalty. I'm of the opinion that if we see this as a moral issue, the whole way that we treat children as adults in this country, if we see this as a moral issue and see something is morally wrong with prosecuting children as adults, then we will never adjudicate children as adults, which means we will never give them adult sentences, which means we would never have juvenile execution.
So let's back up and say the reason why we have the adjudication, adult sentences, the reason why we have the juvenile death penalty is because we are prosecuting children at 13 and 14 years of age as adults, which leads us into all the adult arenas.
Q. How does Florida compare with other states in terms of the percentage of juveniles who are prosecuted as adults?
A. According to the research and statistics it appears to me, from what I've seen, that Florida leads the nation in the prosecution of children as adults. Florida is one of the states that have prosecutorial discretion, which means that the prosecutors make the decision whether they're going to prosecute (a) as a juvenile or (b) as an adult. And when you give that kind of authority to a prosecutor rather than a judge, then nine out of 10, the decision's going to be "put them in jail as an adult," because prosecutors, that's what they do. They want to prosecute to the furthest extent of the law.
Q. I'm sure you're familiar with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Do you feel the practice of prosecuting children as adults violates that convention?
A. I think so, in principle. Let's look at three of the main ingredients. One of the ingredients says that you cannot put anyone under 18 in prison for life without parole. So, we're in violation of that if we give a 13-year-old kid, or a 14-year-old kid, a life sentence without parole, like Lionel Tate. We are definitely in violation of principle No. 1.
Principle No. 2 says you cannot execute anyone under 18 years of age. Now, we don't literally execute anyone under 18 years of age in this country, but we do execute offenders who committed crimes under 18, which is the same in principle. We're still executing a juvenile offender, so we're in violation.
The other part of it says, and I can't quote it verbatim, but in principle it says that you should give the child the benefit of the doubt, that you should give the child the shortest period of time of punishment, and take into consideration the age of the child, etc.
So it's clear to me that there is to be a separate set of rules for prosecuting children vs. adults.
Q. Some people say that in terms of culpability, adolescents are similar to the mentally retarded. The U.S. Supreme Court has said the mentally retarded cannot be executed. Have you tried to make the case that that ruling should apply to adolescents as well?
A. I do. And I'll tell you why, because recent research has shown that the brain of a child is not fully developed, the frontal lobes are not fully developed as an adolescent. So if we have an undeveloped brain, or we have a brain that is mentally incompetent, there's not much difference.
Now let me drive that point home. When John Hinckley almost killed former President Ronald Reagan, the court ruled that he had the mind of a child -- adult act, but the mind of a child -- so they transferred him into a mental facility for mental rehabilitation. However, if a child does the same thing, we don't have that same ruling. We have that this was an adult act, we're going to put this child in prison for life without parole.