The brutal murder of Tessa Majors, an 18-year-old college student, attacked as she walked through Morningside Park in Manhattan, has chilled New Yorkers. According to news accounts, Majors was robbed and stabbed by three youths who accosted her, put her in a headlock, and emptied her pockets, then slashed her repeatedly with a four-inch knife blade. Found by police, she was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital, where she died. The prime suspects are three teenage boys, ages 13 and 14—the third hasn’t yet been apprehended—who confessed to seeking robbery victims in the park.
This horrible incident touches two raw nerves: one dealing with criminal responsibility and punishment for adolescents, the other with fears of a new crime wave. Despite progressive pressure to make it less punitive, New York State law retains relatively serious consequences for youngsters who commit heinous crimes. Instead of confining these young offenders in a juvenile detention center for a few years, New York imposes longer sentences, though not as long as those for adults. For example, if the 13-year-old in the Tessa Major case is found guilty of murder in the second degree, though he wasn’t the one who stabbed the victim, he faces a minimum sentence in the range of five to nine years, and a maximum of life. The minimum for his 14-year-old codefendant, assuming he was the killer, is seven and a half to 15 years, with a maximum of life.
The argument against harsh punishments for juveniles is based on the moral implications of adolescent brain development. Juveniles are often impetuous and reckless, vulnerable to outside influences—especially peer pressure—and have transitory personality traits. Their characters are works-in-progress.
In a landmark Supreme Court case prohibiting death sentences for anyone under 18, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a five-judge majority, concluded that “from a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.” Justice Antonin Scalia, in the same case, responding in dissent, said, “it is entirely consistent to believe that young people often act impetuously and lack judgment, but, at the same time, to believe that those who committed premeditated murder are—at least sometimes—just as culpable as adults.”
The difference between Kennedy and Scalia depends on whether we give more weight to reform or to retribution in fixing penalties. From a rehabilitative perspective, youth should be treated less harshly because they are more apt to improve. That view is much easier to adopt, though, when the offense is minor. When it involves violently taking a human life, the redemption of the transgressor diminishes in significance and the demand for justice takes precedence. If the crime is sufficiently heinous, most people favor a harsh penalty, regardless of whether the perpetrator is likely to reform.
In Tessa Majors’s case, the 13-year-old participated in the robbery that led to her death. The law treats this as felony murder, under the theory that someone who engages in a violent crime like armed robbery can foresee that the victim might be killed, whether he intends for her to die or wields the death weapon. Though some law professors think it unfair to treat as a murderer someone who didn’t kill or intend to, others have no problem finding moral equivalency between planning a robbery/murder or participating in an armed robbery that results in death.
The other issue raised by the Majors homicide concerns crime in general. Many New Yorkers remember only too well the great crime rise that began in the late 1960s. Violent crime not only soared for the next 25 years but also became more vicious, with horrific episodes such as this recent one happening regularly. The viciousness may have been related to the youth of the perpetrators: the 1970s and 1980s saw a much greater involvement in violent crime by youth than in the decades before or since. The youthful psychological defects of the adolescent brain also seem to include indifference to the suffering of others.
While predicting the course of crime is uncertain at best, the national indicators remain generally encouraging. Since the crime spike of 2015 and 2016, the murder rate has declined two years in a row. And factors associated with a long-term crime boom are not evident. In 1980, males aged 15 to 19—one of the most criminogenic groups—made up 4.6 percent of the population; today, they account for less than 3.7 percent.
Still, there are cities in which violent crime has not declined this year, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. The Big Apple saw a 1.7 percent increase in reported violent crime and an 8.6 percent increase in homicides, as of early December. There is little reason to assume that America’s violent past is entirely behind us.
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