Kids — They Grow Up So Fast These Days

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Boys will be boys — except in a growing number of courts, where they are men. A nationwide trend towards trying juveniles as adults was taken to its furthest frontier in recent days when a Michigan court heard the case of Nathaniel Abraham, accused of first-degree murder. Two years ago, the then-11-year-old Abraham borrowed a .22 caliber rifle, sat on a hillside in a Detroit suburb, and shot stranger Ronnie Greene, Jr. in the head. Abraham's lawyers claimed the shooting was accidental; they said he was taking potshots at some trees. The prosecution said he bragged to pals that he was going to kill someone. The trial ended Tuesday with a verdict of second-degree murder.

The trial became a case study of sorts. Under the microscope: A three-year-old Michigan law, the most stringent of its kind, which permits prosecutors, with a judge's permission, to try children as adults. "The theory behind this law," says TIME Detroit bureau chief Nichole Christian, "is that because more and more children nationwide are committing crimes that we generally think of as 'adult crimes,' these kids should be tried as adults." And despite widespread discomfort with attributing adult motivations to children, the laws are popular in many states. Opponents of the measures, ranging from Amnesty International to Abraham's defense lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, claim they violate the most basic rights. For instance, says Fieger, an adult with the mental age of an 11-year-old could present a "diminished capacity" defense, so what's the logic in assigning adult capabilities to an 11-year-old? (Especially one who is, according to defense psychologists, operating on the level of a six-year-old?) In Abraham's case — which Fieger says he will appeal — prosecutors indicate they may be willing to ease up in the sentencing phase, offering the possibility of eight years of juvenile detention followed by a psychological reassessment and, potentially, parole. "It's too early to say how the judge will sentence Abraham," says Christian. "But there is a realization, in this case, at least, that this boy is still a boy."