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Juvenile Justice Can Be Confusing

Can an adult be tried for a crime they committed as a kid?

For murder, yes. There isn’t a time limit for prosecuting murder. In other situations, the law in effect at the time of the crime governs the punishment or sentence.

A well-known example is Michael Skakel who was fifteen when he killed Martha Moxley. He wasn’t tried until he was middle age, when he was tried as a juvenile.

It’s a story that began sometime on October 30, 1975, in Greenwich, Connecticut. It may have started before then, but that’s the date 15-year-old Martha Moxley was brutally murdered with a golf club.

Almost immediately, suspicion fell on three individuals. Kennedy Littleton, a live-in tutor at the Skakel house,, Thomas Skakel and his brother Michael Skakel. Littleton was hired by the Skakel’s parents while Thomas and Michael competed in everything as brothers will. On the night of Martha’s murder, Michael climbed a tree in his parent’s yard and watched Thomas and Martha make out under the branches.

Martha’s body was beneath the tree the next morning.

No one was charged, and the case drifted in cold case files for decades. When William Kennedy Smith was tried for rape in 1991, a rumor started  he may have been present the night Martha was murdered.  While the rumor proved to be unfounded, it did renew interest in the case.

Dominick Dunne, an author, published in 1993 ‘A Season in Purgatory,’ a fictional account of the Martha Moxley murder. Mark Fuhrman, infamous for his involvement in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, wrote his book in 1998. “Murder in Greenwich” and named Michael as the murderer and highlighted the mistakes made by the police during the initial investigation.

A one-man grand jury was seated to review the case in June 1998 and in January 2000, Michael was arrested for Moxley’s murder. A judge decided Skakel would be tried as an adult and his trial began in May 2002. The following month, Skakel was found guilty and sentenced to 20-years to life behind bars.

Skakel was granted a new trial in October 2013 which led to Skakel’s release on $1.2 million bond the next month. Skakel was retried in October 2017, his sentence reinstated, and was returned to prison to finish out his 20-to-life sentence.

Skakel will complete his sentence in an adult prison. Prior to 2017, New York City juveniles were sent to adult prisons as well. With a new law, that changes.

New York City Changes Incarceration Patterns For Youth

Beginning in October 2019, teenagers will not be sent to jails and prisons housing older offenders. With a $163 billion infusion, New York will send 16 and 17 year-olds to family and youth courts. and hold them in juvenile facilities.

According to Raise the Age, a push to campaign for changing the age of criminal responsibility, the new law will affect 28,000 sixteen and seventeen-year-olds who are arrested each year in New York. Over 70% of young arrestees are Latino or Black.

Advocates claim the new law shows the state’s readiness to put young people’s rehabilitation first. Juvenile justice researches have been aware of the adverse results coming from criminalizing youth.

Risks of sexual assault are five times higher for teenagers in adult facilities and, for their ‘protection,’ youth are often locked in solitary confinement.

The likelihood of suicide skyrockets when teens are placed in adult prisons. They are also more apt to become live-long criminals than their counterparts in the juvenile system.

As humanity creeps into the judicial system, adults will still be tried for crimes committed as juveniles, but at least juveniles won’t have to suffer the draconian outcomes of being locked up in an adult prison.