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June 7, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
When we think of childhood, we often think of innocence. In fact, the word “childlike” is a synonym for trusting.
But when children try to harm others, it brings into question our definitions of child and adult. Because we associate children with goodness and trust, we view violence as very grown-up behavior. That’s why the state of Missouri sometimes views people younger than 17 years old — children for all other legal purposes — as adults.
Missouri certified the minors in this week’s feature as adults for their legal proceedings. James Miller, then 16, was charged in a shooting outside Columbia’s Chuck E. Cheese’s this past February. Jonathan McClard was the same age in 2007 when he pleaded guilty to shooting a peer. Owen Welty was 13 in 2006 when he was arrested on suspicion of his neighbor’s murder. The state didn’t find all three youths guilty, but it did classify them as men during their respective trials.
Rudyard Kipling once wrote that sadness or wrongdoing could turn a child into an adult. In a short story in Life’s Handicap, he wrote: “Yet there be certain times in a young man’s life, when, through great sorrow or sin, all the boy in him is burnt and seared away so that he passes at one step to the more sorrowful state of manhood: as our staring Indian day changes into night with never so much as the gray of twilight to temper the two extremes.”
Our feature story raises many troubling questions about that gray twilight. If 16-year-old Jonathan was indeed a man, when did he become one? When he pulled the trigger? When the door of his prison cell closed behind him?
Maybe he never had the chance to become an adult at all.