A murder in Illinois may clarify the youth sentencing question

A few days ago I wrote a column about the new sentencing trial for DC sniper Lee Boyd Malvo and the question of whether or not he could actually get out of prison. This elicited more than the usual amount of feedback about youth sentencing guidelines when examined through the various lenses of social justice questions. Malvo is black and some of his victims were white. More to the point, he was 17 years old at the time of his murder spree. Should that matter? The complaints mirrored many others which come up when we examine criminal sentencing. What were the races of the killer and the victims? Were they gay? What were their respective religions? Was one of them trans? All of these factors tend to cloud our discussions. A hateful white youth attacking a Muslim woman gets a very different review than a white cop who shoots a black kid who stole a car. I’m sure you get the idea.

This week there is a new tragedy to look at. It took place in the Chicago suburb of Lincolnwood. A 16 year old girl allegedly murdered an Uber driver by stabbing him to death in the wee hours of the morning. It was a horror show to be sure. (CBS local news)

A 16-year-old girl has been charged with murder, for allegedly stabbing an Uber driver to death on Tuesday in north suburban Lincolnwood.

Eliza Wasni, 16, has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of 34-year-old Grant Nelson, of Wilmette, and was scheduled to appear in bond court in Skokie at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, according to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office.

Lincolnwood police Nelson was stabbed around 3:20 a.m. near the intersection of Touhy and Lincoln avenues. He was taken to St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, where he was pronounced dead around 8 a.m. Tuesday.

Please note for the record that I already used the word “allegedly” and you can infer it for the rest of the discussion, as no person is technically guilty until they’ve had their day in court. But in this case, there is video of the young girl stealing the blades used in the murder from the Walmart where she took the second Uber. The weapons were later recovered in her possession. Let’s face it… they’ve got the right girl. You can get a lot more of the details about the suspect, the victim and the murder itself from this profile at Heavy.

As for demographics, forget it. Yes, the murder happened near Chicago, but this wasn’t your typical gang hit from the South Side. Unlike those other cases I mentioned above, Eliza Wasni is about as white as they come. So was her victim, Grant Nelson. Neither of them may have been particularly wealthy, but he had a nice car and she lived in a small suburb to the north of the city. Lincolnwood hasn’t had a murder since 2006. We have no clue as to their respective religions and if Eliza is gay or trans or anything else you might care to defend, we don’t know it from the coverage. That’s the point. And these uncertainties are also why the early stages of the investigation are the time to ask these questions. We don’t know. As far as anyone can tell, these were two random white people who didn’t know each other.

Was Eliza “crazy” in some fashion? As usual, if you’re willing to hack somebody up with a machete you’re clearly not inside the normal bell curve for behavior. But she was in touch with the real world to the point where she had a credit card, could install and operate an Uber app on her phone, go shopping and pick out a place to kill someone. She might be “crazy” in that regard, but she was aware of her surroundings.

Having established all of this as prelude, allow me to ask the assembled masses one question. Why shouldn’t she be treated as an adult and go to jail for the rest of her life? What would set her apart from someone who was twelve or fifteen months older than her, giving her a lighter sentence and some hope for “rehabilitation” in this case? She went out (again… allegedly) in the middle of the night, stole some blades and hacked a man to death. Should she be treated like a child and put back out in society sooner?

I’m asking these questions of our audience not so much to determine what should happen to Eliza Wasni at trial, but as a chance for us to examine how we debate and decide questions of crime and punishment in modern society. Have we put on such unassailable blinders that we will leap to defend some people, at least to a degree, based on how well they fit the “profile” of the aggrieved groups we reflexively rush to the aid of? And do we move to assume that others are guilty by virtue of their various demographic characteristics? On top of that, almost infallibly the younger, on the cusp of legal adulthood, are given more slack than full adults. But why?

Assuming the charges prove true, the suspect acted as an adult despite being 16. The crime was horrific. Should the punishment not match the crime? And if you can agree with that in this case, perhaps it could temper our passions in discussing other cases in the future where demographics make the questions more… “complicated.” Just something for you to ponder next time a “controversial” crime comes to trial.

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