Criminal charges will help Crofton boy


March 05, 2000|By NORRIS WEST

JENNIFER Garvey would probably be alive today had it not been for her boyfriend, and he knows it.

Both were troubled 15-year-olds when they went to a Crofton storm drain as co-signatories of a suicide pact. The boy brought a gun. Jennifer fulfilled her part of the morbid agreement. She took the death instrument and pulled the trigger. Upon seeing this, the boy blinked.

He had no clue that violent death was so horrible. How can anyone know?

The strange case raises a number of familiar concerns:

Kids and guns -- again. The boy had access to an unlocked firearm, as did the 6-year-old in Michigan who killed his first-grade classmate last week.

Teen depression. Childrens problems cant be easily dismissed.

Weaknesses in the juvenile justice system. The Crofton boy was no stranger to Maryland authorities.

Suicide, the third leading cause of death among those age 15 to 34 years old. Sixty percent of all suicide victims use firearms, usually those very guns bought for self-protection.

The Crofton boy, now 16, needs mental health treatment if he stands any chance of living through such a traumatic event. Society seems to have given up on the notion that the justice system can rehabilitate adults, but it must rehabilitate juveniles.

That is why Anne Arundel County prosecutors were right to charge the boy -- as a juvenile -- with violating Marylands assisted suicide law. He is the first person charged under the statute, which everyone presumed would stop the likes of Jack Kevorkian.

In truth, the state didnt need the assisted suicide law to bring charges against the boy or get him the help he seriously needs. He also is charged with possession of a handgun and reckless endangerment. Even without assisted suicide, he could be detained at a juvenile facility until age 21, the maximum penalty.

But dont write off Anne Arundel States Attorney Frank R. Weathersbees decision to bring the assisted suicide charge as a cheap publicity stunt in this serious matter.

Jennifers death came less than a month after the law went into effect. The boy supplied the physical means of the girls death, which the statute makes a crime that merits a court hearing.

Complaints that the assisted suicide law wasnt intended for teen-agers who break their part of suicide pacts are nonsense. Legislators and the governor are responsible for carefully wording bills. That is why amendments and tinkering are sometimes necessary to deal with various scenarios. In this case, the legislature wanted to stop people from helping others take their lives.

The state law came two years after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that there is no fundamental right to assisted suicide, saying the practice has no place in our nations traditions.

The 16-year-old is not Jack Kevorkian. The girl he helped had no terminal illness and wasnt enduring unbearable physical pain that only heavy drugs and death could relieve. But death came to this girl as it did to Kevorkians patients. And it came violently with an illegally possessed weapon.

The Supreme Court would prohibit suffering cancer patients from choosing the time and manner of their death. So it is really difficult to defend the assisted suicide of a young, healthy person, even if the partner is a juvenile.

It is important to note once again that the boy is not charged as an adult. That is good. He is under the scrutiny of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice, which is under enormous pressure to give young offenders the help they need after some damaging revelations last year.

The juvenile system has a fifth chance to rehabilitate him. The boy has been in trouble four other times -- for drug and alcohol violations and for a malicious destruction charge that was dismissed.

He wont rehabilitate himself. A juvenile justice caseworker told a juvenile master that the boy assaulted his mother in December. His mother says he is uncontrollable.

Detention -- and the professional help that should come with it -- may be the only thing that can prevent the juvenile delinquent from becoming an adult criminal.

Juvenile officials fear that he is suicidal again, and are watching him carefully. They should. Although he blinked after Jennifers death, he has more problems now than ever. More than 32,000 Americans kill themselves each year.

Charging the boy with assisted suicide isnt tough and Draconian. Its probably the most sensitive thing the state can do for a teen-ager who has to deal with his role in his girlfriends death and other issues that trouble him.

Norris West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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