I am not in the habit of figuratively beating up on 14-year-olds. I generally think we should cut teenagers some slack. It’s tough to navigate the emotional wilderness between adolescence and adulthood.
But if what I have seen, heard and read is true, I have no problem with authorities treating Jean Sanchez, 14-year-old murder defendant, like a grown – and seriously disturbed – man.
A judge last week slapped down the request from Sanchez’s lawyer to move his second-degree murder case to Family Court. That’s usually where teen misdeeds are dealt with. Normally, that’s the way to go.
But there is – if charges against him are true – nothing “normal” about this kid, or this case.
Authorities say Sanchez, then 13, didn’t just impulsively kill another 13-year-old last May. No. He lured Ameer Al-Shammari – who had accused Sanchez of stealing his cellphone earlier that day – to a vacant lot in Black Rock. He knocked him down and tied his hands with a shoelace. He wrapped another shoelace around the prone boy’s neck. Prosecutors say he then strangled Al-Shammari to death, while at the same time sexually violating him.
Sanchez left the boy’s body, went home, turned on the TV and took a nap. Later, after discarding the cellphone, Sanchez stopped by his uncle’s house for pizza, according to prosecutors.
If all of it is true, it’s beyond cold, heartless or calculating. It’s downright reptilian.
Sanchez, held without bail, has pleaded not guilty. Police say they have ample DNA evidence and a confession.
Erie County Court Judge Sheila DiTullio, in her public-record denial of the defense motion, called the alleged conduct “heinous … The facts of this case and the prospective evidence are compelling.”
Try him in Family Court and, if convicted, Sanchez might again walk among us by his 21st birthday. If he did what prosecutors charge, that’s a frightening possibility.
Try Sanchez in adult court, and – if convicted of murder – he as a minor faces a minimum sentence of five years to life. That ultimately puts his release in the hands of a parole board.
I would rather have his freedom controlled by professionals than arbitrarily granted as a birthday gift.
It recalls for me a similar case. Twenty-two years ago in Savona in the Southern Tier, Eric Smith, 13, lured 4-year-old Derrick Robie to a wooded area. He strangled the boy, smashed his skull with rock and sexually penetrated him with a stick. Some felt that Smith was too young to fully understand what he had done. Prosecutors disagreed. Tried and convicted as an adult, Smith was sentenced to nine years to life. Now 35, he remains in jail, having – despite good behavior – been denied parole seven times due to the “brutal” nature of the crime.
The state since 1978 has allowed minors to be tried as adults for certain serious offenses, including murder. Reasons include sufficient punishment, justice for a victim’s family and keeping a sociopath off the streets until he emotionally and psychologically transforms.
I agree with Sanchez’s lawyer. In arguing for a move to Family Court, he noted that the teenage brain isn’t fully developed. Their judgment is clouded, impulses unchecked. It’s why some of them drive too fast, drink too much and otherwise prompt their hand-wringing parents to wonder where they went wrong.
But that’s all impulsive behavior. Translated into violence, it means throwing a fist or – at worst – unthinkingly pulling a trigger.
There is nothing “impulsive” about the length of time it takes to strangle someone to death, while sexually violating him.
Teens are generally not blind to the difference between right and wrong. It they were, the courts would be full of 13-year-olds accused of rape and murder. Instead, alleged 13-year-old killers are so rare, it’s front-page news.
“Although they don’t have the same control mechanisms as adults, there are certain things even 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds know you can’t do,” said Frank Sedita III, the district attorney. “You can’t burn down a house, rape the lady next door or kill another kid in the neighborhood.”
The court document noted that Sanchez’s behavior detoured after leaving his grandparents in Puerto Rico four years ago. His “résumé” since then is pockmarked with fights, pot-smoking, school suspensions and a social media threat to shoot another kid. None of which separates him from a horde of delinquent teens.
His alleged abuse and killing of Ameer Al-Shammari does. If it is true, he showed – and feels – no mercy. Nor should he get any.