Ellen Page played Sylvia Likens in “An American Crime” – a girl tortured and murdered by her caretaker and neighborhood children
Indiana is a dangerous state for adolescents and teenagers. The consequences for poor decision making, on the part of minors, are severe. Most recently we got a glimpse into the inner workings of the system when a group of teenagers were arrested for felony murder in Indiana after entering a man’s home. They did not commit a murder. They did not even plan a murder. They picked a home to enter based on the belief no one was even home. However, because the homeowner pulled a gun on the teenagers and killed one of them the prosecutor feels he must set an example.
There is no question that making a choice to break into a home is a bad one. No one – including the family of one of the boy’s, Blake Layman – would argue that a consequence is not warranted. The consequence should reflect the crime committed though, right? It should not be based on the crime manifested as a result of a prosecutor perverting one of the best examples of bad law in existence.
The prosecutor clearly feels he must set an example though. The felony murder rule almost always seems as though it is intended to set an example. We live in a society that quickly forgets the harsh lessons learned by others, but we like to establish precedents. The more extreme, the better.
That is, until that precedent involves someone we love.
You don’t necessarily have to make a bad decision to find yourself facing serious time in prison. People just need to think you did – namely a prosecutor and a jury. In the state of Indiana age has seemed, prior to today, insignificant.
How many times have you heard the mantra “adult time for an adult crime” or “if a child can make an adult decision they should be tried as an adult”? On its face it almost sounds reasonable, but these are fallacies.
First off, there is no such thing as an adult decision. One cannot logically say that a child made an adult decision. The main reason it is illogical to describe a decision in the above way is because it is a scientific fact that the brain of an adolescent, teenager, and even young adult is not fully mature. The process of brain maturation is a gradual one. Areas in the brain critical for making intelligent decisions appear to be the last to completely develop. For example, children do not have the same degree of impulse control, ability to fully understand consequences, or emotional control as adults.
If children could drive…
As a society we know this. We don’t let young children drive vehicles. We don’t allow adolescent girls to make the decision to get married. Though there are some parents who allow their children to drink alcohol in the privacy of their home, it isn’t legal and as a society we allegedly do not condone it. There is a laundry list of decisions we do not allow children to make and these are only a few examples.
Individually most people realize there is a difference between children and adults, even if these people are the first to post a disparaging comment on a news story about the latest tragedy perpetrated by a young teenager. “Fry ‘em!” is one I see a lot. However, these people probably wouldn’t hand their car keys to a twelve year old boy and ask him to go to the store and buy a six pack of beer. Not just because it is illegal to do it, but because they would likely have grave concerns about whether he would even make it to the store without causing an accident.
They also probably wouldn’t tell their fourteen year old daughter that it is okay to quit school and marry a 20-year-old boy she met on the Internet. One reason is because most parents wouldn’t trust their child to make a decision of that magnitude. Parents have a job, which is to protect their child or children from others who may harm them. Often the responsibility of a parent is to guide the child when it comes to making decisions, protecting the child from his or her own self.
Some believe the act of committing murder – under any circumstance – is different than other kinds of decisions. Again, this is illogical. The same adolescent brain that society has deemed incapable of making decisions such as drinking alcohol, voting, gambling, and myriad other activities is responsible for making the decision to kill. A person’s brain does not magically mature moments before this kind of decision is made. A child does not automatically transform into an adult just because he or she is waived into the adult court either.
And yet that is exactly how the system works in some states. A look into Indiana’s past reveals a state that is inconsistent in its treatment of juveniles as well as adults. However, the state was not always as hard on teenagers as it is now. Take the story of Sylvia Likens. Sylvia was left in the care of the Baniszewski family a few months before she died in 1965. The 16-year-old was tortured and brutalized in more ways than one before she finally succumbed to her fate.
The manner of her death is shocking, but the circumstances surrounding it are almost unfathomable. The woman charged with her care, Gertrude Baniszewski, not only inflicted severe abuse on the teenager, but encouraged her own children and other kids in the neighborhood (one as young as ten) to do the same. Astonishingly, adults who came in and out of the home saw Sylvia’s condition but did nothing to help her.
Gertrude had seven children of her own. Paula was 17, John was 12, Stephanie was 15, Marie was 11, Shirley was 10, and the twins were 18 months. John was convicted of manslaughter – sentenced to serve a penalty of two-to-21 years. He was released after two years. Paula was convicted of second-degree murder. Two neighborhood boys named Richard Hobbs and Coy Hubbard, were also convicted of manslaughter. They were released after two years as well.
Though Gertrude was sentenced to life in prison, she and her daughter eventually received new trials. Twenty years after Sylvia’s murder, Gertrude was released on parole. She changed her name and left the state. In 1990, she died as a result of lung cancer. Her eldest daughter Paula took a plea of voluntary manslaughter and was released after serving two years.
The story was immortalized in the 2007 film An American Crime, starring Ellen Page and Catherine Keener.
What a difference a few decades make, right? In 1966, a child of 12 in Indiana faced a sentence of 2-to-21 years for murder.
Paul Gingerich (front) and Colt Lundy
Now consider the more recent case of Paul Henry Gingerich. In 2010, Paul was 12 when he was arrested for the murder of a friend’s stepfather. Colt Lundy had allegedly been discussing plans with others to murder his stepfather for about a month prior. Following the murder, the media reported that the motive for committing the crime was to give the kids an opportunity to run off to Arizona to sell t-shirts to “drug people“. Originally the story was the teens planned to go to California. It was odd, to say the least, but no one seemed to question whether there was more to the story.
Four boys were involved in the crime, but ultimately it was Paul and Colt who paid the price. Paul, who looked like he could have been anyone’s child and who had never been in any serious trouble, was suddenly facing the very real possibility of being tried in adult court alongside 15-year-old Colt. The prosecutor alleged that the boys should be tried together, arguing in court there was no distinguishable difference between the two.
Many testified at Paul’s waiver hearing that he was nonviolent. Despite his young age and issues involving the issuance of Miranda warnings (the police did not give the parents written notice of these rights), the boy was moved into adult court.
The case didn’t go to trial though. Colt was the first to take a plea deal requiring him to serve a thirty year sentence – the last five of which were suspended. He went straight to Wabash despite his young age. He has remained at Wabash ever since. Both he and Colt appeared on a program produced by Calamari Productions and MSNBC titled Young Kids Hard Time. The entire director’s cut is here.
Paul Henry Gingerich in his cell, shown in “Young Kids Hard Time”
Following suit, Paul soon took the same plea deal as Colt. The problem was that his age and prior nonviolent history did not warrant such a sentence. He had also systematically been denied his right to due process. One of the factors considered during a waiver hearing is whether or not a juvenile is amenable to rehabilitation. Nothing in Paul’s background suggested he was not, but he was waived to adult court anyway. This exposed Paul to a penalty such as life without parole, or life with parole once Paul was well into his fifties or sixties. Exposure to excessive penalties is one of the main reasons young people are talked into plea deals – many of which are not much better than the sentence the person would have received had they been convicted at trial.
Once the dust began to settle it became clear that the plea Paul accepted was not appropriate. Monica Foster, the attorney who headed up Paul’s appeal, began filing motions on the boy’s behalf. Organizations such as the Juvenile Law Center of Pennsylvania, the Children’s Law Center, and the Campaign for Youth Justice also became involved in his case. The attorneys collectively sought to have the conviction overturned. I have been posting various motions pertaining to Paul for well over a year here. It is worth reading through them to see how this legal battle has played out in the court.
In a country filled with injustice the appeal almost seemed a long shot. However, today the Indiana Court of Appeals issued a ruling in favor of Paul, vacating the adult conviction and sending the case back to juvenile court for trial. The court found that Paul’s rights to due process were violated.
This ruling was a step forward for Indiana, but it comes on the heels of the Supreme Court’s denial of Martin Anthony Villalon’s appeal. Anthony was 15 when he was arrested for a murder he has always maintained he did not commit. Another boy implicated in the murder was acquitted in a separate trial, but Anthony received a 60 year sentence. His entire circumstantial case hinged on the conflicting testimony of known gang members.
It is hard to know what the future holds for Anthony who resides at Wabash, or 16-year-old Blake who awaits his trial for felony murder while housed at the county jail among adult offenders. Just prior to his arrest, Blake was a freshman in high school and working 30 hours each week at Wendy’s. He also helped his mother care for his younger sister who has suffered from a brain tumor since she was very young. In a very short span of time Blake’s life changed completely. Now he faces the possibility of a lifetime in prison.
The frightening lesson to take away from this is that if you live in Indiana (or states who treat juveniles similarly) you or someone you know could find themselves in this type of situation. Blake and Anthony could have been anyone’s children. As resistant as one may be to the idea that something like this could happen to them, it is important to accept that possibility.
This is American society at its core. This is how we respond to complex social problems such as juvenile crime. These sentences will not reduce the amount of crime in this country because they are not the cause. Forcing children to become adults in a legal sense when we scoff at the idea of doing so in other aspects of life is absurd.