In 1994, Eric Smith became a household name around the world. At 13-years of age he brutally killed a 4-year old boy, leaving the world shocked and horrified. It was, in part, because of Smith that America decided to get tough on kids who commit crimes.
Western New York - Some background:
Savona, NY is a quiet little country town with a single stop light. Here, neighbor knows neighbor, kids can play out in their yards and on the sidewalks without parental supervision. Most people leave their homes unlocked never giving it a second thought.
Savona was a 'safe' little town. I know, because I lived there then.
On the morning of August 2, 1993, 4-year old Derrick Robie lived just a block from Savona's Summer Recreation Program. On this day, he wanted to be a big boy and walk to Summer Rec. all by himself, because he knew that his mommy was busy with his fussy baby brother. "Derrick says, 'It’s OK, mom. I’ll go by myself.' … He gave me a kiss and I said, 'I love you,' and he says, 'I love you, Mom,' and he went hopping off the sidewalk," recalls Doreen Robie.
Little did she know that would be the last kiss and 'I love you, Mom' she would ever get from him.
Eric Smith lived across town and was a 13-year old loner that most of the local kids didn't like. Smith had bright red hair and freckles which became the tools the local kids would use to torment him. Most days, Eric Smith could be seen riding his bike around Savona for hours on end.
On this same morning, Smith was also headed to Summer Rec. on his bike. Some place between Derrick's home and the park where Summer Rec. was held, Eric met up with Derrick and lured him into a wooded area. He then brutally killed Derrick.
(December 10, 2004: CBS's Dan Rather did a story on Eric Smith called "Why Did Eric Kill?" It is here where you can read the rest of the details of how this little boy died, the thoughts and theories of the case as it progressed, the trial and finally words from Smith himself.)
August 16, 1994: Eric Smith was convicted of second degree murder. His sentence: 9 years to life, which is the maximum sentence that was allowed for a 13-year old in New York. He's been up for parole at least three and each time the parole board denied him.
Smith's case was one of the cases that precipitated changes in the laws for juvenile offenders. "The state later boosted the maximum sentence for a juvenile age 14 or 15 convicted of murder to 15 years to life. Adults convicted of murder in New York face a maximum sentence of 25 years to life."
However, now they (different states) are rethinking this. Because of new research on adolescent brains, studies indicate that teens who go through the adult court processes, end up worse than those who do not. "They get in trouble more often, they do it faster and the offenses are more serious."
The District Attorney that prosecuted Smith, John C. Tunney, still feels that the punishment Smith was given is appropriate. Tunney said, "Take somebody like Eric Smith, who brutally murdered a defenseless child. I'm hard-pressed to think of a better way to deal with such a person. This is a person from whom we in the community need protection."
Tunney said that he doesn't think that the current sentencing laws need to be changed, even though many of the laws that were passed in the 1990s carried penalties of life without parole.
Susan BetzJitomir, who is Smith's lawyer, tells the Star-Gazette that Smith, who is now 27, has spent more time in prison than adults who have killed children. She said she believes that the best course of action is to put the offender into "inpatient treatment in a specialized behavioral science unit for children, maybe for years."
BetzJitomir went on to say that she thinks that teens should be 16 or 17 years old because they are then at a more appropriate age to treat them as an adult for the crimes they commit. "I just think that kids, while they on some level should be held accountable for what they do, are just kids," she said.
Smith received extensive rehabilitation while he was in juvenile detention facilities, and at 21, was moved into a state prison. She said that she feels that Smith didn't need to be there in state prison.
"He's actually talking about taking paralegal classes and maybe when he gets out he'll work for me," BetzJitomir said. "It's a shame to waste minds like his."
Do you think the laws for juveniles need to be adjusted?
Do you think 'inpatient treatment' will rehabilitate people like Smith?