The question before us

Preview: ABC's `Nightline' spends five days exploring the juvenile justice system as the country finds itself wanting -- because of the serious crimes they're accused of committing -- to try more children as adults.

February 28, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

No one in television journalism can focus a debate like ABC's "Nightline." And, starting tonight, Ted Koppel & Co. take on juvenile justice in a five-part series that runs through Friday.

Thanks to court orders from judges in California allowing ABC's cameras rare access, "Nightline" was able to spend six months chronicling the lives of juvenile criminals, as well as some of their victims, parents and family members. The reality of their lives is exactly what's missing in so many of the other media debates heard these days as more and more states move to try violent juvenile offenders as adults.

Tonight's report takes us to Yuba City and the case of 14-year-old Thomas Preciado, accused of murdering a convenience store owner there. The first thing "Nightline" does is make the victim a real person without exploiting her. Rhupinder Dhillon, an immigrant from India, was attacked behind the cash register of her store -- being repeatedly stabbed -- allegedly by Thomas.

"There will be a lot of allegedlies in this introduction," Koppel tells viewers, "because Thomas hasn't yet been tried. ... Obviously the central question is whether he did it. But we're more concerned with a related question tonight: Should Thomas be tried as an adult?"

We see police photographs of the massive amount of blood left by the attack, but "Nightline" does not show the woman's body. No reason for it; the blood makes the point of what a horrific crime it was.

But think how many dead and near-dead bodies you've seen, especially on local news reports, that also didn't need to be there. It might seem like a small thing, but the restraint "Nightline" shows is exactly the sort of editorial choice that separates it from the pack.

The police videotape of the questioning of Thomas and then the boy's confession to his mother are riveting, but they are thought-provoking, too, which is the larger point. We see this teen-ager covered in blood sobbing incoherently one minute, then trying to make a deal with his police interrogator the next by offering names of "some drug dealers."

The cop is no saint, clearly trying to keep the kid from asking for a lawyer before he fully confesses. But Thomas does ask for a lawyer, and the interview ends. And then it's Thomas and his mother alone in the room hugging, crying and screaming as he tells her that he killed the woman because he was drunk. The mother later claims in an interview with Koppel that neither she nor her son knew police were videotaping them.

The subsequent interviews present several sides of the issue, yet focus the discussion intellectually and emotionally with a remarkable efficiency. We hear from the victim's daughter and son-in-law who want Thomas tried as an adult and to pay for his crime with a sentence that would start at 25 years in prison if he's found guilty.

We hear from the judge who will decide whether or not to try Thomas as an adult. We also hear from the teen and his mother. Koppel's questions are straight to the point.

To the mother who says her son is just a child and shouldn't be tried as an adult, Koppel says, "He's a kid. He's just 14 years old. But he's a big kid and he was big enough to take a knife and allegedly stab a woman to the point of near death [the victim died at the hospital shortly after arriving]."

I guarantee by the time "Nightline" gets to mother and son, you will care about this issue. You might even want to seek more information about it.

Tomorrow, the series looks at whether kids who commit such violent crimes can be rehabilitated. Wednesday, the focus is on kids returning to society after a stay on a prison ranch. Thursday, mental health issues are explored, while Friday's focus is on Proposition 21, an initiative letting California district attorneys put certain juveniles straight into the adult system. Californians will vote on thison March 7.

Executive producer Tom Bettag said in a phone interview last week that the report was done with great concern about the issues of privacy raised as ABC's cameras went into the lives of these teen-agers. But, like the judges who granted access, Bettag said he believes the public needs the kind of information "Nightline" obtained to make an informed vote on initiatives like Proposition 21.

I agree. The next five nights of ABC's "Nightline" might not be able to compete in the ratings with the return of David Letterman on CBS. But this is television that can make us smarter and more socially responsible rather than just pleasantly amused.


When: 11: 35 p.m.-12: 05 a.m. today through Friday

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In brief: Compelling and thought provoking

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