Nathaniel Abraham Trial: 1999
Nathaniel Abraham Trial: 1999
Defendant: Nathaniel Abraham
Crimes Charged: Murder, assault with intent to murder, and felony use of a firearm
Chief Defense Lawyer: Geoffrey Fieger
Chief Prosecutor: Lisa Halushka
Judge: Eugene A. Moore
Place: Pontiac, Michigan
Dates of Trial: October 29-November 16, 1999
Verdict: Guilty of second-degree murder
Sentence: Placement in a juvenile detention center until the age of 21
SIGNIFICANCE: Only 11 years old at the time of his arrest, Nathaniel Abraham became the youngest American convicted of murder as an adult. His trial spotlighted the controversial issue of trying juvenile offenders in adult court.
During the 1980s, the number of violent crimes committed by juveniles in the United States began to rise. In response, a growing number of states passed laws stipulating that children under 17 could be tried as adults for certain crimes. The slogan "adult crime, adult time" captured the sentiments of supporters of these juvenile justice statutes. By 1992, more than 40 states had passed laws for trying children as adults.
Some civil libertarians and juvenile justice experts argued against the tough measures, saying the juvenile justice system had a better chance of rehabilitating young criminals than the adult system did. Those arguments held little sway in Michigan, which passed its version of the juvenile justice law in 1996. The law was one of the strictest in the nation, allowing a child of any age to be tried as an adult. Three years later, the state was the setting for the country's most controversial juvenile murder trial.
Two years before, police in Pontiac, Michigan, had arrested 11-year-old Nathaniel Abraham for the October 29, 1997 murder of an 18-year-old man who was shot while standing outside a party store. He died a day later from a single. 22 caliber bullet wound to the head. Nathaniel admitted that he had been firing a. 22 caliber rifle in the direction of the store on the day of the shooting. The boy insisted though that he had not meant to shoot anyone; he had merely been firing randomly at some trees. But Oakland County prosecutors argued that Nathaniel had deliberately set out to kill someone that day and had later bragged about the shooting.
Prosecutors received permission to charge Nathaniel with first-degree murder and several other felonies and try him as an adult.
Murderer or Troubled Youth?
Nathaniel hardly presented the image of a deadly killer. Wearing oversized prison garb, the 65-pound boy appeared tearful and bewildered at pre-trial hearings. But prosecutors argued that Nathaniel was exactly the type of juvenile offender the 1996 law had meant to target. Police had previously suspected him in almost two dozen crimes, including burglary and assault. For a variety of reasons, however, the boy had never been formally charged.
Nathaniel's case drew the attention of attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who had previously defended "Dr. Death," Jack Kervorkian. Fieger took on the job pro bono and began a series of motions and appeals that delayed the trial until October 1999.
When the trial finally opened on October 29, prosecutor Lisa Halushka wrote down these words for the jury to read: "I'm gonna shoot somebody." This, she claimed, was what Nathaniel had said to his girlfriend days before the killing. As the trial progressed, Halushka called witnesses who supported the idea that Nathaniel's act had been a premeditated murder. He had stolen the rifle, then practiced target shooting at balloons. He had also fired the gun at a neighbor's house, barely missing the occupant, just before the fatal shooting. Later, Halushka noted that Nathaniel had told police conflicting stories about the shootings—proof that he knew what he had done, and that it was wrong.
Defense attorney Fieger argued that the shooting was an unfortunate accident. Nathaniel did fire the gun, yes, but was not trying to hit anyone. Fieger also introduced testimony from an expert marksman. The witness said that it would be almost impossible to deliberately hit a small target from more than 200 feet—the distance Nathaniel was from the victim—using the old, battered rifle the boy had fired.
Fieger also called on child psychologists to describe Nathaniel's mental state. The boy, these experts testified, had an IQ of 70, and at the time of the murder, his thought processes were like those of a seven-year-old. Fieger tried to prove that Nathaniel lacked the mental capacity to form the intent to kill. A prosecution psychologist witness, however, testified to rebut this claim.
Outside the courtroom, the trial provoked massive public interest. The CBS television magazine 60 Minutes profiled the case, and Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca admitted the Michigan social system had failed to help Nathaniel in the past, despite his impaired intelligence and previous brushes with the law. Gorcyca said he owed the boy's mother, Gloria, an apology. An upset Mrs. Abraham replied, "Owe me an apology! To say the system failed but they still want to try my child as an adult? This is ridiculous."
Although Nathaniel was charged with first-degree murder, prosecutors asked Judge Eugene A. Moore to allow the jury to consider lesser offenses. Moore did so, and on November 16, 1999, the jury found Nathaniel guilty of second-degree murder. He was believed to be the youngest American ever convicted of murder as an adult. Moore had three options for the sentence. The harshest was a prison term of 8 to 25 years. Prosecutors favored a more moderate, "blended" sentence: Nathaniel would go to a juvenile detention center, and then be reviewed between the ages of 18 and 21 to see if he had been rehabilitated. If so, he would be released. If not, he would go to an adult prison after turning 21. Moore, however, surprised the prosecutors by choosing the most lenient sentence. He ruled that Nathaniel be sent to a maximum-security juvenile detention center until the age of 21, and then freed.
As he handed down his sentence, Moore attacked the harsh Michigan juvenile justice law. The state, he said, "has responded to juvenile criminal activity not by helping to prevent and rehabilitate." However, most Michigan lawmakers and prosecutors continued to support the law. And across America, no states seemed ready to change their own statutes, even as some experts questioned their benefits.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Bradsher, Keith. "Boy Who Killed Gets Seven Years; Judge Says Law Is Too Harsh" New York Times (January 14, 2000): Al.
—. "Michigan Boy Who Killed at 11 Is Convicted of Murder as Adult." New York Times (November 17, 1999): Al.
—. "Murder Trial of 13-Year-Old Puts Focus on Michigan Law." New York Times (October 31, 1999): 22.
Hewitt, Bill, Champ Clark, and Amy Mindell. "A Life in the Balance." People (November 22, 1999): 197-99.
Michigan v. Abraham. Court TV Online (September 19, 1999): http://www.courttv.com/trials/abrahamlO1999_ctv.hml.