Sunday, October 16, 2005

revisiting esmie

Last week, a got a big spike in visitors looking for stuff about Esmie Tseng, the 16-year-old girl accused of stabbing her mother to death. There was another hearing in her case on Wednesday, and I guess that sparked the interest. I didn't attend the hearing. From what I understand, it was short and uneventful. I've been told that Esmie smiled a lot at her attorney, which indicates a turnaround in their relationship since the last hearing.

I had intended to go to a hearing in another juvenile murder case which was scheduled for the exact time as Esmie's, but I was too busy trying to earn money. It was a pre-trial hearing for Michael Jones, a 17-year-old who faces second-degree murder charges in the September killing of Steven Peters, a bassist for the Kansas City Symphony. Like Esmie, Michael is being triied as an adult. I became interested in Michael's case because he's a longtime friend of a student I work with at Central High, Geoffery Stone. Geoffery's the leader of the debate squad there, and an all around good kid.

Last month, on the afternoon after I attended Esmie's earlier hearing, I showed up at Central and found Geoffery in a state of distress because he had visited Michael in jail that morning. He felt as though this kid he'd been friends with since kindergarten was being ramrodded into a very long prison sentance, and really had no one to advocate for him. And he was dismayed by his friend's behavior. A few days earlier, Geoffery had seen Michael on TV, walking into the court room with a big smile, flashing gang signs.

"Why did you do that, Michael?" he asked his friend that morning. "They're going to fry you."

"Because," Michael saiid, "I have nothing more to live for."

Geoffery told me that Michael has had a tough life. His mother raised him and his siblings until she was murdered when he was under ten years old. He would go wiith Geoffery to church sometimes and everyone there really liked him. He's mild-mannered and friendly. Geoffery told me Michael's not the least bit violent.

All I know about Michael's case comes from the Star and Geoffery's account of his conversation with Michael. None of these reports place Michael in the room where Peters was murdered. He was in a car parked outside when Peters was shot. But Michael admits that he and his co-defendent had gone to Peter's place to rob him, and this falls squarely under Missouri's secoond-degree murder statutes. If you are committing a felony, or even if you plan to commit a felony, and someone dies in the course of events, then you face second-degree murder charges.

I feel much more sad about Michael's situation than about Esmie's. Yes, Michael appears to have made a very bad decision when he got in that car and headed off to commit a robbery. But I don't think he planned for it to end in death. Perhaps our community will be safer if Michael is tried and convicted as an adult for second-degree murder, if he's locked up for most of his adult life. But I've been around enough kids like Michael to suspect that, for the most part, he's not a menace to society. If Geoffery says he's basically a good kid, I believe him. I just think he needs soome help.

It's puzzling situation. While I want to see young men like Michael take responsibility for their actions, to make better decisions, I'd also like to see our community do a better job of making better decision-makers out of kids like Michael. Much of this burden falls on the folks who played an immediate role in Michael's upbringing. But I also believe that we who never knew Michael, who rarely walk in his circles, also share some blame. To me, it boils down to privilege. My privilege in this society is braced, at least in part, by the relative lack of privilege for kids like Michael. And believe I have an obligation to use my privilege to help, even in the smallest way, level the playing field.

After Geoffery told me about Michael's situation, I told him about Esmie's case. I was curious to know his opinion as to whether or not she should be tried as an adult. After thinking about it for a while, he said he thought she should be. Unlike Michael, there appears to be little doubt that she murdered her mother. And the crime was horribly vicious. The fact that she was so bright and full of potential only makes the case for adult punishment stronger, Geoffery said.

Then I told him about all the people who have been rallying behind Esmie, trying to move her case into the juvenile division. I think this really disturbed Geoffery. Where's the community to support Michael? Esmie had a vast, strong support system for her entire life. Michael's family is poor and broken. His schools suck. His neighborhood dirty and run down compared to Esmie's. It offers few opportunities. And I believe his neighborhood is that way n large part because Esmie's neighborhood is so good. Kansas City's east side exists for the sake of Johnson County.

It all makes Geoffery feel like society places more value on kids like Esmie than on kids like Micheal.

"These people should ask themselves," Geoffery said, "if they would do the same thing if this were a black male."

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