March 26, 2012
A recent and disturbing New York Times headline underscores how little is understood about youth, human brain development, and the law. This is exactly how harmful public perceptions are created and perpetuated—when people in influential positions make sweeping conclusions based upon incomplete information. The headline read: "Rutgers Verdict Repudiates Notion of Youth as Defense."
The story was written in response to a recent verdict in the high-profile Rutgers University hate crime case. Eighteen-year-old Rutgers freshman Dharun Ravi used a webcam to spy on his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, and invited friends to watch as Mr. Clementi engaged in a sexual encounter with another man. Tragically, Mr. Clementi committed suicide a few days later. Prosecutors charged Mr. Ravi with a hate crime. His attorney characterized Mr. Ravi's behavior as nothing more than a stupid college kid prank. But the jury wanted the 18-year-old to be held accountable and found Mr. Ravi guilty.
The article went on to say, "The failure of the jerky-kid defense is likely to change the legal landscape by showing that jurors can conclude that young people who are sophisticated enough to spy on, insult and embarrass one another electronically are sophisticated enough to be held accountable." And, "the notion of innocent youth as a shield to culpability might not hold as much sway as it once did in court... ." That anyone, must less the New York Times or other legal professionals, would draw such an all-encompassing conclusion based upon this case is alarming.