Should Autumn Pasquale’s Murder Make Us Reconsider Life Sentences for Teens?

Maybe some kids do deserve to be locked up forever.

At what point do we show mercy for a murderer? That’s the question at the center of a timely editorial that ran in Monday’s Inquirer. The paper’s position—that the Supreme Court’s ban of mandatory life sentences for teenage killers this past summer didn’t go far enough. The next step, it said, should be to eliminate life-without-parole as a punishment for juvenile criminals. The argument is compelling: Teens are still developing, emotionally and intellectually, often lacking a full comprehension of the consequences of their actions. To doom a child to a future behind bars isn’t justice, the paper argued.

The next day, two teenage brothers in Gloucester County were charged with the death of 12-year-old Autumn Pasquale. Authorities say she was beaten and strangled by Dante Robinson, 17, and his 15-year-old brother, Justin. Her body was left in a blue recycling container. In the days that followed, we’ve been captivated as more details have surfaced, including the eerie role that social media has played in this horror story. On a Facebook page dedicated to finding Pasquale, one of the “likes” was from Justin, her alleged killer. The boy also reportedly exchanged messages with Pasquale’s brother—first by posting only her name, “autumn,” and then saying “it was an accident” and “my brother did it.” Prosecutors in New Jersey are considering whether to charge the teens as adults.

While I still see the logic in the Inquirer’s position, Pasquale’s death makes for a strong counter-argument. Based on what we know now—which, granted, is not much—a little girl was killed for her BMX bicycle. Questions have been raised about the Robinson brothers and the stability of their family. Dante is also a special education student. Yet none of that sheds any light on how a meeting of three kids who loved bikes could end in murder.

A thoughtful, compassionate friend of mine said, “This is a tragedy for all three of those children.” She’s right. If found guilty, even if they’re not sentenced as adults, the Robinson brothers have altered the course of their young lives in the worst way. The Inquirer points to “the growing body of evidence” that teens are influenced by “immaturity” and “impetuosity.” We may learn more about this case that will suggest the Robinsons don’t deserve to spend the rest of their days in jail.

But I can’t stop thinking about the barbaric way Pasquale died, or the way her body was hidden, like trash that was thrown away. Life sentences shouldn’t be handed down lightly for anyone, adults or juveniles. Yet consider that Dante, at 17, is less than a year away from “adulthood.” That seems a rather arbitrary line to draw in determining his punishment, if found guilty. The argument against juvenile life sentences is sound. But in the most gruesome cases, it should be an option, at least—even for teens. This case proves the point. A little girl was murdered. Autumn Pasquale’s family deserves the comfort in knowing that her killers may never be set free, if a judge and jury so decide. It would be tragic end to a heartbreaking tale. It would also be justice.