Last December, Tessa Majors, an 18-year-old college student, was stabbed to death in Manhattan’s Morningside Park. Police have now apprehended three suspects, 14-year-olds Rashaun Weaver and Luchiano Lewis and 13-year-old Zyairr Davis. Weaver and Lewis face second-degree murder charges as adults, and potential life sentences; Davis faces family-court charges as a juvenile because he is not alleged to have directly restrained or stabbed Majors. The New York Times has published a nearly full-page editorial arguing that no 14-year-old, not even an alleged killer, should be tried in adult court or face a prison sentence that extends beyond his majority. In attempting to make this argument, though, the Times rewrites history, glossing over the horrific crimes in the late 1970s that spurred New York governor Hugh Carey, a Democrat, to let violent juveniles face the adult justice system in the first place.
Trying the two older teens as adults is wrong, the Times believes, arguing that “the state can use family courts to base criminal justice for adolescents around rehabilitation instead of punishment, even in cases of murder.” As support for this contention, and as an example of earlier judicial overreach, the paper reaches back to the 1978 Willie Bosket case. The 15-year-old Bosket fatally shot two men and wounded a third on the subway, but because of his age, he faced only five years in juvenile jail. New York tabloids, the Times says, “responded with outrage,” and Governor Carey signed a “draconian” law allowing for courts, in future cases, to try teens as young as 13 as adults, sentencing them beyond age 21.
Older readers who remember Bosket may find this summary lacking. Bosket was notorious for the cruelty of his crimes. On March 19, 1978, Bosket, accompanied by his 17-year-old cousin, Herman Spates, fatally shot 44-year-old Noel Perez of the Bronx, a stranger, in the head on the #3 train at 148th Street; as the man was dying, Bosket went through his pockets. Four days later, Bosket and his cousin shot and wounded a subway motorman who confronted them in a trainyard. Days after that, the two teens shot and killed 38-year-old Moises Perez (no relation to Noel), again on the #3 train. Finally, that month, Perez and Spates shot and wounded a passenger on the D train in the Bronx. Bosket pulled the trigger all four times. On four occasions in one month, he deliberately shot four strangers.
The Times neglects to mention that Bosket had already had the opportunity to benefit from multiple rehabilitative interventions by the juvenile-justice system. In 1989, a former self-described “child-care worker” recalled his experience with Bosket at a state facility for boys, where Bosket had been jailed for robbery a year before the subway murders. “I was almost Willie Bosket’s first murder victim,” Martin Gallanter wrote. “In 1977, the convicted killer known as New York’s most incorrigible inmate took a pool cue by the thin end and swung it like a club, aiming it at my skull. I moved and the tip of the stick brushed by my nose.”
When Bosket wasn’t attempting to bash his guardian’s head in, he revealed a keen intelligence. “We spent many hours of many evenings in deep conversation,” Gallanter remembered. The teen was “highly manipulative and very charming. A stranger would have wondered why he was incarcerated.” Gallanter remembered, too, that many of the locked-up juveniles he came to know went on to “turn their lives around.” Bosket was not one of them.
Indeed, Bosket failed to benefit from his five years in juvenile lock-up after the subway murders. Months after his 1984 release from the short murder sentence, Bosket assaulted and robbed a man in a Harlem apartment building. Finally, in adult prison, he tried to kill a guard. In its Sunday editorial, the Times noted that Bosket will most likely die in prison; he even told the paper in 2008 that “If somebody came to me with a lethal injection, I’d take it.” It’s unfortunate that a human being robbed himself of any hope of redemption, but Bosket is incarcerated for good reason.
Repeatedly referring to the alleged murderers of Tessa Major as “children,” as if they were four years old, not 14, the Times uses the teens’ first names—“Rashaun stabbed Ms. Majors as Luchiano restrained her”—perhaps to demonstrate their childishness. The paper argues that Weaver and Lewis should be tried in family court, since “adolescent brains are different than those of adults, making adolescents less likely to exercise impulse control, assess risk or consider long-term consequences.” Many young offenders, the paper argues, “are readily capable of being rehabilitated.”
While the developing adolescent brain may be a partial excuse for some bad behavior, such as shoplifting or reckless driving, or even getting into fights and causing injury in the heat of the moment, it’s not an excuse for targeting vulnerable strangers and committing premeditated assault. Robbing and killing Tessa Majors was a choice. Weaver and Lewis face adult justice not because they are “black boy[s],” as the Times implies; it is because this type of crime says something bad about the teens’ moral character. In fact, the Tessa Majors case makes a good argument that the state is hardly abusing its power to lock up teens, as Davis faces only family court.
Could the teens be “rehabilitated”? Anything’s possible, though their behavior offers little encouragement. Weaver, who likely committed at least one previous violent mugging, eluded authorities for weeks after the Majors killing, police say, possibly to allow an incriminating wound on his hand to heal—hardly suggestive of deep regret. There can be no assurance that the two teens would spend their time in juvenile detention growing into responsible young adults. That’s why murderers, and other teens convicted of particularly violent felonies, face long sentences—and then parole boards, to assess their remorse and the risk they may still pose to public safety.
“Locking up Rashaun and Luchiano for life won’t bring Tessa Majors back,” the Times laments, missing the point. The point is simple: to save future Tessas from vicious killers.
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