Boys' murder case used in bid to alter child prosecution laws

Leniency urged for two who beat father to death

October 06, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MIAMI - People across the nation are consumed with the fates of Alex and Derek King.

A born-again Christian in Tennessee says he prays for them three times a day. A woman in Arkansas has held parties in her home to get signatures on petitions that urge leniency for the boys. A waitress in Illinois has circulated a similar petition at her bank and grocery store and has posted messages about their case on the Internet.

They are among the dozens of parents, child-welfare advocates and ministers throughout the nation who are urging the courts to go easy on Alex, 13, and Derek, 14, when they are sentenced in December for beating their father to death and burning their house to cover up the crime.

The brothers, who were tried as adults, are facing sentences of 22 years to life for second-degree murder, and possible 30-year sentences for arson.

The grass-roots campaign, spurred by live national coverage of the trial on Court TV, also has larger ambitions. Advocates are using the boys' case to press for changes in state laws that would make it more difficult for children to be prosecuted as adults.

Florida leads the nation in the number of such prosecutions. Last year, the state had 395 prisoners younger than 18 serving sentences in adult prisons, according to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. Florida is also one of 15 states that allow prosecutors instead of judges to determine if a child should be treated as an adult.

"Everything that has happened in Florida is a total violation of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child," said Cynthia Price Cohen, executive director of the Child Rights International Research Institute in New York. She is working with Beneath Our Wings, a coalition trying to change laws on the prosecution of children, to organize a symposium on juvenile justice.

The Rev. Thomas Masters, pastor of the New Macedonia Baptist Church in Riviera Beach, Fla., and the president of Beneath Our Wings, said: "When we start prosecuting our children as adults, something is wrong with that. We have to have a national organization to develop and map out strategies on a local, state and national level to effectuate the changes we want to bring about to the system."

Beneath Our Wings is planning a show of support in the courtroom when the King boys are sentenced, and it plans to lobby Florida lawmakers and Gov. Jeb Bush.

The King case is the third high-profile trial in Florida in the past two years in which minors have been charged with murder, all of which were broadcast by Court TV.

Support was fragmented, though, for the other two boys: Lionel Tate, who was 12 when he beat a 6-year-old playmate to death in July 1999, and Nathaniel Brazill, who was 13 when he shot his teacher in May 2000. Nathaniel was convicted of second-degree murder and is serving a sentence of 28 years in prison without parole, and Lionel was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

Part of the outrage about the King case stems from the prosecutor's contention that Alex had been sexually molested by Rick Chavis, a family friend who was acquitted of the same murder in a separate trial but who will be tried next month on charges of lewd and lascivious acts on a minor for his relationship with Alex.

The prosecutor in the case insisted that sympathies are being lavished on the wrong people.

"I never felt they should be treated in any kind of special way because of the circumstances of the killing," said David Rimmer, the Escambia County assistant state attorney who told the jury that the boys had confessed to cracking their father's skull with a bat. "I had no problem whatsoever prosecuting them as adults. They bludgeoned him to death while he was sleeping."

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