When Murder Turns Us Into Monsters

If we're ready to assume that two 15-year-olds are unredeemable, we've lost the battle.

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Last week, I spent the majority of my time reporting on the murder of Jim Stuhlman, an unarmed 51-year-old man who was shot dead on Thursday, March 12th, while taking his dog for an evening stroll on his quiet street in Overbrook. And adding to the tragedy of Stuhlman’s murder was the Philadelphia Police Department’s announcement that the suspects in the case are in their mid-teens.

Reaction to the announcement was swift on social media and in the comments sections of the various stories we published, and the bloodlust was in no short supply. Here’s a taste:

…for a murder this senseless, there’s only one solution – and that’s the one that saves the Philly taxpayers years of paying for these three in prison.

There’s a special hell put aside for savages like this. Let’s accelerate that by fast passing the death penalty. Taxpayers should not pay for the remainder of his life wasting away in prison. Done.

This man begged for his life and these little scumbags killed him. Just natural born killers. Where is your public outcry for racial justice now!!!!!

I understand the sentiment, believe me. Last November, I got caught up in my own bout of bloodthirsty rage when a mother and her boyfriend were charged with torturing and beating to death the woman’s three-year-old son, supposedly because he wouldn’t eat his breakfast. “Here Are Two People Who Need to Die,” I declared in the headline, and the supporters of my position were numerous and vociferous, with calls for a return of public hangings and a suggestion that the state end the lives of the boy’s killers with “a blot gun like they use on cattle. Simple.”

The murder of Jim Stuhlman hit close to home for me, literally. Stuhlman was murdered on the 6400 block of Woodcrest Avenue, which is a two-minute walk from my own house. I didn’t know him, but I know a lot of people who did, and by all accounts, he was a fine man, father, husband, businessman and neighbor.

But is the answer to kill the teenagers charged with his killing, assuming, of course, that they are convicted? Lock them up and throw away the key? I’m not so sure.

Think back to when you were 15 years old. Think about all the stupid shit you did. No, you didn’t kill anyone. But I bet you broke a few laws or at least more than your fair share of rules. I know I sure did.

And since the days that I was 15 years old, science has shown us that the human brain is far from fully developed at that age.

From the National Institute of Mental Health:

Young people at this age are close to a lifelong peak of physical health, strength, and mental capacity, and yet, for some, this can be a hazardous age. Mortality rates jump between early and late adolescence. Rates of death by injury between ages 15 to 19 are about six times that of the rate between ages 10 and 14. Crime rates are highest among young males and rates of alcohol abuse are high relative to other ages. Even though most adolescents come through this transitional age well, it’s important to understand the risk factors for behavior that can have serious consequences. Genes, childhood experience, and the environment in which a young person reaches adolescence all shape behavior. Adding to this complex picture, research is revealing how all these factors act in the context of a brain that is changing, with its own impact on behavior.

The arrest of these three teens has demonstrated for us (again) that there are many conversations we need to have. Conversations about parenting. Conversations about the schools. Conversations about access to guns, legal or illegal. Conversations about the criminal justice system. Conversations about what was already being done or not being done about the two 15-year-olds who were known to police and “had robbery in their backgrounds.”

But to simply throw our hands up — pre-conviction, mind you — and say that there’s no hope for three kids whose parents, schools and city failed them at such a young age, well, then we’re basically done for.

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.