April 25, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, April 25, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Crime and Punishment: Age of moral culpability at center of Boston murder debate
The issues of crime and punishment have fascinated human beings from the beginning of time. The question of what is the proper punishment for a certain crime and how justice might be conducted in a sane society—all these are very difficult issues. And what we’re noticing lately is a more deepening confusion over these issues as the society around us secularizes. One symptom of that secularization is a clear sense of loss of focus when it comes to justice, and some very basic questions are now being raised. All of this comes together with several recent headlines, interestingly enough, with many of them datelined from Boston, Massachusetts.
In recent days, the Boston Globe has featured a point-counterpoint about whether or not a murderer who committed the murder at age 14 should now be paroled, and the basic question is whether or not justice has been served and whether or not the murderer has been rehabilitated. Writing for the man’s parole is James Alan Fox, who was a family professor of criminology. He writes in the Boston Globe, and I quote,Show Full Transcript
“On Nov. 20, 1986, Rod Matthews, then a 14-year-old freshman at Canton High, lured his new-to-town classmate Shaun Ouillette into the woods on a ruse of having to return a baseball bat to a friend. Once shrouded by the trees, Matthews attacked his unsuspecting victim from behind, pummeling the helpless boy across the head with the bat and then left him lying dead in the snow.
“Although it was his first offense, Matthews was transferred to criminal court, making him the youngest child to be prosecuted as an adult in the Commonwealth at that time.”
He goes on,
“Despite the brutality of the assault and the extent of planning involved, the jury convicted Matthews of the lesser charge of second-degree murder, presumably in light of his youth.”
So what we have in the second paragraph of this article for the man’s parole is the acknowledgment that it was a brutal, premeditated murder. Furthermore, there is also the acknowledgment that the jury discounted the murder, at least in large part because of the age of the murderer. Fox then writes,
“The sentence was automatic: life imprisonment, but with parole eligibility after 15 years. It has now been twice that long that Matthews has been locked behind bars with an institutional record free of any major infractions. He earned his GED and successfully participated in a variety of counseling programs available to him in prison. As I testified at Matthews’s recent hearing before the parole board — his third attempt for supervised release — it is time to make his parole eligibility a reality rather than just a persistent illusion.”
Fox writes that immediately after the murder, he had been “close to the victim’s family, having sat with his mother and stepfather during the trial.”
Shaun Ouillette was this new-to-town classmate of the murderer, and the murderer clearly lured him into the woods with a premeditated plot to violently kill him, which he did. Rod Matthews, the murderer, 14 at the time of the murder, is now 43 years old. Fox writes,
“Now age 43, Rod Matthews is not the same person he was three decades ago. Of course, who of us is?”
Now that’s an interesting question in and of itself. Is a man who is now 43 the same man who was the murderer at age 14? Here the biblical worldview would indicate the answer to that is yes, that there is a continuity to our identity, that it is not accurate to say that a man who is now age 43 is not the same person who the boy was at age 14. The biblical worldview does not deny a process of growth and patterns of maturation, nor does it identify children on the same par as adults. But on the other hand, it does make very clear that a crime like premeditated murder is one for which the murderer must take full responsibility. Fox goes on to write that the US Supreme Court has handed down several decisions concerning punishment for juveniles and, in his words, the Court,
“…has emphasized the idea that adolescents do not have the same level of culpability as adults, regardless of how heinous their crime.”
Once again, a very interesting statement. Here you have this attorney arguing for parole, suggesting that the US Supreme Court has emphasized the idea that adolescents don’t have the same degree of moral responsibility no matter how heinous their crimes might be. In a couple of very interesting twists in his article, Fox argues,
“Young murderers may recognize the wrongfulness of killing, but they fail to grasp the enormity of its impact. This fact is amplified by Matthews’s emotional state back in 1986, which, according to psychological assessments made soon after the murder, was severely stunted, resulting in a profound inability to understand his emotions or to empathize with his victim.”
Just keep in mind this was a victim he had premeditated to lure into the forest and then to pummel him to death with a baseball bat, which he did. Law professor Fox then suggests another reason why the man should now be paroled,
“In addition, the Supreme Court has noted the unusually compelling effect of peer expectations and approval in guiding adolescent behavior. Matthews had discussed the murder beforehand with his two best friends. Earning their respect and establishing his reputation for backing up words with action were paramount. For young Matthews, the fact that the two pals failed to repudiate his stated interest in killing Shaun served as tacit endorsement for his plans, even though he has since come to recognize that that was not their intent.”
Now, just consider these two arguments this law professor has argued in public in the Boston Globe. He is arguing for the release on parole of a 43-year-old murderer who at age 14 in a premeditated and horrifying fashion lured another boy the same age into the woods with the clear and singular intent to kill him and then carried off the crime. But now you have mitigating factors that are argued by this law professor, including the fact that, after all, adolescents crave peer approval, and the fact that the peers did not prevent this in some way, he argues, makes the murderer less responsible.
Then he also argues, of course, that a young murderer may recognize, I quote him again, “the wrongfulness of killing, but not the enormity of its impact.”
Now just consider that once again. What are we to do with that? What does this say about a society that is growing more and more confused about the sanctity and dignity of human life, even when it comes to the most horrifying case of murder? As I said, this was a point-counterpoint set of articles, and the other argument was made by Kenneth N. Berkowitz, who is the Police Chief of the town of Canton, where the murder took place. Berkowitz writes,
“On March 29, I had the opportunity to speak for the dead — as well as the living. I testified at the parole hearing for Rod Matthews, the convicted murderer of Shaun Ouillette.
“As a police officer for 24 years and chief of police for more than 11 years, I have testified many times, but few cases have elicited such strong feelings as this one. Although I welcomed the chance to be Shaun’s voice, I also felt some trepidation. Matthews brutally crushed Shaun’s skull with a baseball bat, but he was only 14 years old and was still someone’s son. Thirty years ago, this case made national headlines for numerous reasons — the heinousness of the crime, the youth of both the victim and the murderer, the motivation, and the total lack of remorse displayed by Matthews at the trial. It was also the first time in Massachusetts that a juvenile was tried as an adult.”
Now one of the interesting new facts that is brought into this argument is the fact that the murderer displayed absolutely no remorse at the time of the murder and, in this case, Chief Berkowitz goes into incredible detail about this lack of remorse. This is information not provided in the argument for the murderous parole. Berkowitz writes,
“For three weeks, Matthews left Shaun’s lifeless body in the woods to be eaten by animals while Shaun’s family and law enforcement desperately searched for him. Matthews had shared his evil intentions with two classmates before the attack and immediately after the senseless killing; Matthews rushed to one of the boy’s homes and told him what he had done. Matthews also demanded that the boy return to the crime scene with him so he could see Shaun’s body. Upon arriving at the “viewing,” Matthews told his friend he would be next if he ever divulged what Matthews had done.”
The moral issues put before the parole board were made clear when Berkowitz writes,
“I listened intently to the experts speaking in favor of Matthews, now a grown man at 43. The testimony painted a picture of a changed man. I listened to how he was a model prisoner and had had only a single altercation during the time he had been incarcerated. A forensic psychologist testified to a battery of tests that indicate the “low risk” Matthews posed to kill again if released. A noted academic testified that Matthews had been jailed for close to 30 years, longer than the average killer’s sentence. He went on to say that Matthews is truly remorseful and has earned a second chance.”
But Berkowitz writes,
“When pressed by the parole board chairman, Paul Treseler, as to why he had killed, Matthews still failed to give a substantive or definitive answer.”
Now we should note with interest and with some considerable concern the fact that so many of these headlines are now being concentrated on these issues—it seems just in a matter of a few days. We had the Manson parole hearing in California and other similar issues, but the Boston exchange is perhaps the most illuminating of all. Here you have arguments made for and against the fact that a murderer who at age 14 committed such a horrifying crime to be considered to be a new man, not the same man who was the 14-year-old who had been engaged in such a brutal premeditated killing—and, by the way, the details of the killing are so horrifying, I will not repeat them in any detail on The Briefing.
One of the things we need to note in this exchange is that there is no objective value put on any human life in either of these articles. The biblical worldview is not only eclipsed, it’s absolutely absent. And so what’s fundamentally lacking here is any understanding of why murder should be understood to be a particularly horrifying crime, other than the fact that just at basic human moral impulses it appears to be. But the lack of certainty about this explains why you have two diametrically opposed arguments about moral responsibility when it comes to a man, now age 43—the argument on the one hand is he’s a changed man, and the argument is that he poses a very low threat to society; on the other hand you have a police chief coming back to say, who is going to speak for the dead and who has such confidence that this man has been rehabilitated?
Now here again we notice the subjectivity in terms of all this evaluation. You’ve got psychotherapists and forensic psychologists and law enforcement officials and lawyers, but they’re all arguing over the moral rehabilitation or lack of rehabilitation of a childhood murderer. A society increasingly sliding into a secularized worldview loses the ability to draw any clear moral judgments and to draw any clear moral lines. That includes, we are now horrifyingly seeing, the issue of the moral line of murder and the sanctity and dignity of human life.
Moral insanity: raising the age of moral culpability while lowering age of sexual consent
But of equal interest to us has to be the question of when moral responsibility is recognized in the law to have arrived in terms of personal maturity and age. This leads to an article in this week’s edition of Newsweek magazine, the headline:
“25 is the New 18.”
Newsweek tells us that neuroscience is changing how and when the criminal justice system punishes young adults. The author of the article, Tim Requarth, cites what he calls, “a growing body of evidence from neuroscience that brains continue to develop well into a person’s 20s.”
Now recall the fact that neuroscience was already cited in the argument for the parole of the murderer now at age 43 in the Boston Globe. Now it shows up again, but what we see in the very introduction to this article is the fact that we are now witnessing an argument that moral responsibility can’t be traced back to age 14, or even at the legal age of majority at age 18. What we now see is the argument that perhaps moral responsibility really doesn’t show up until the 20s, sometime in the 20s—this article is not at all clear about when that sometime might be. The article cites the fact that the law currently recognizes diminished capacity for those under age 18 due to their immaturity,
“They are less culpable and so deserve less punishment than those 18 or older,” says Newsweek.
But now there is the argument that 18 isn’t some kind of magical moral line in the sand. Elizabeth Scott, a professor of law at Columbia University, said,
“People are not magically different on their 18th birthday. Their brains are still maturing, and the criminal justice system should find a way to take that into account.”
So the radical dimension of this article is not that it deals with the question of those under 18, but precisely because it deals with those who were aged over 18 and, furthermore, well into their 20s. You note the attempt once again to shift a moral question to a scientific question or a medical question. In this case, the specialization is neuroscience, but you’ll also note the lack of the fact that there’s any consensus about what the scientific evidence would suggest. One part of the article says that the pattern of brain development creates a perfect storm for crime around the ages of 18-21 when, according to the article,
“People have the capacity for adult emotions yet a teenager’s ability to control them.”
But just a few sentences later, you have a man who is a former commissioner of probation for New York City who now teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government who said, “that offenders should not enter the adult system until 21, with gradually diminishing protections until 25.”
So a couple of really interesting things about this: First of all, the lack of any objective criterion whatsoever to determining something as significant as criminal responsibility in a case of murder, and what we see here is the weakening of a society’s ability to make very clear moral judgments even in the case of murder. Some people have argued that you can look at issues like abortion and capital punishment and euthanasia and there there might be a diversity of opinion, but the argument has gone when it comes to something like premeditated murder, well there you have a very clear cultural consensus that remains. But all these headlines indicate that consensus really doesn’t remain at all. You also have increased arguments now on behalf of those who are under 18 and those who are over 18—somewhere between teenage years and age 25—that moral responsibility is on a sliding scale to be presumably at some point determined by neuroscience, rather than morality.
As you might expect, also datelined from Boston, the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev came up. He was the teenager who was involved with his brother in plotting and carrying out the mass murder of the Boston Marathon bombings. He, of course, was recently sentenced to death for his complicity in the crimes. But the Newsweek article takes note of the fact that Tsarnaev’s attorneys argued that he was under the domination of his older brother.
“The period between ages 17 and 20, science shows, is exactly when people tend to develop mature abilities to resist coercion.”
Now, again, you have this vague reference to science, but in the same article that just showed how inconclusive this science is, if it’s even science at all. Furthermore, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was age 19, that places him somewhere between that 17 and 20 when we are told that science shows is when people tend to develop mature abilities to resist coercion. In any case, the important thing to recognize here is that the federal jury in the Tsarnaev trial didn’t buy the argument. But what’s also interesting is that evidently a good many others did.
But while looking at this, it is also important to recognize that a story recently emerged from the NPR affiliate there in Boston, that’s WBUR and its program “Here and Now,” having to do with two classmates of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in high school who have now made a short film about their experience being the friend of a man who turned out to be such a murderer. The boys were students together at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, an historic school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and now these two young men are writing about their boyhood friendship with the man who turned out to be a murderer. Speaking to WBUR, the two young men said this,
“I think that there’s this default narrative, in a way, that goes with a terrorist – that they were a sociopath, that they had signs before this. And I know it’s hard for people to hear, but this is the hard truth in a way, the fact is there were no red flags. There was nothing.”
Now we would like to think we would be able to spot the terrorist in the making, especially if he was our teenage friend. But in this case you have two young men who say they were no signs whatsoever. One of the young men said,
“Everyone wants there to be a pattern. Everyone wants to be able to sort of write it up and quantify it and say ‘this is what makes someone a terrorist.”
The other young man said,
“The film, I think, is about what happens when you task people with those questions: Why did this man do this? How did he become a terrorist? How are we supposed to know that? It’s not just the fact that we feel this pain because we knew someone that was involved. We’re also from Boston.”
The shock of these two young men was in the forced recognition that their friend was actually a murderer and that he had developed into a murderer before their very eyes. But before leaving this story, we need to make another recognition. It’s really interesting; it’s incredibly telling that we’re living in a society that is trying to raise the age of moral responsibility for criminal behavior over and over again. In a series of just a few articles that appeared in recent days, even in the span of this one article in Newsweek, the age goes from the mid-teens to age 18 to then over 18 to somewhere in the 20s, somewhere between 21 and 25. To state the obvious, we’re soon going to be living in a society that isn’t sure that anyone under a certain age, let’s just say potentially 30, is actually really responsible for a crime as horrifying as murder. But the other, opposite development is also just as revealing. We’re living in a society that says when it comes to sexual behavior, the age of consent should be going lower and lower. We are told that adolescents, even 12-year-olds, have the right to have an unfettered conversation with physicians even getting birth control over against the wishes of their parents or without even their parents’ knowledge. The moral contradiction in this should be obvious. We need to say to the society around us, how can you be so sure that moral responsibility for murder is something that’s going higher and higher when you’re simultaneously arguing that the age of moral responsibility for sexuality is going younger and younger? But as Christians attempting to think through all things through the lens of the Christian worldview, let’s just step back and recognize what we’re witnessing here. We are witnessing a mass self-delusion on the part of society, a self-delusion that puts both sexual innocence and human dignity at risk. It’s actually hard to imagine how a society can recover from this depth of moral confusion.
Pro-choice group callously celebrates abortion by breaking, eating baby-shaped cookies
Finally, just so we come to the shocking awareness of how human life is being devalued before our eyes, Ericka Andersen reports on a story that I first heard about through social media coming from Dahlonega, Georgia. National Review reports,
“Pro-choicers go to great lengths not to use the term “babies” when it comes to unborn children. Which is what makes it ironic that a University of North Georgia pro-abortion group decide to feature cookies in the shape of said babies to promote keeping abortion legal.
“Worse than just featuring the cookies, the group chose to break them in half, which can only be a reference to what happens to infants when they are torn apart in the womb during an abortion. They were reportedly chomping off the heads and laughing about it as well.”
Well, you can look at a story like this, now well documented, and you can say, well, this is just a group of college students. But what does it say that we are a society producing this kind of college student? What does it say that even though they don’t want to use the word ‘baby’, they made these cookies in the shape of a baby and then in an argument for a woman’s so-called right to abortion they ate the cookies tearing the babies apart? But perhaps the most telling thing of all comes in a letter about the controversy that was written to the student body by Janet L. Marling, who was identified as Vice President for Student Affairs. She wrote about the fact that the controversy had emerged, and she defended the University saying that both the pro-life and the pro-abortion groups had followed student protocol in terms of having the booths that led to the controversy. She then writes this,
“Conflicting viewpoints and the manner in which they are presented can be disturbing and highly offensive in some situations. However, as a public institution of higher education, we provide an environment that encourages respectful dialog about differing beliefs and values while preserving the First Amendment right of free speech and the institution’s scope of intervention in these situations is limited.”
But then comes this sentence,
“UNG [that’s the University of North Georgia] is a values-centric institution and the passions of our students, faculty, and staff enrich our community. As we continue our dialogs, it is my hope that we all model civility and respect of others now and in the future.”
Just consider those words. Here you have an administrator saying, “We are a values centric institution. Evidently some people in our campus hold up the value of human life and the sanctity of human life. Other people on our campus make cookies in the shape of unborn babies and then destroy them in an effort to mock the pro-life argument and to defend abortion rights.” What does it mean to be a “value centric institution” when you have that range of values on your campus? This is the total meltdown not only of any sense of moral meaning, but it shows you just how vacuous the word values has become. The word values has become completely devalued. So here from Georgia is clear evidence of the devaluation of human life, coming down to a cookie.