February 4, 2004

Prof. Brumberg 'Rethinks' Death Penalty for Minors

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Debates that raged decades ago sometimes fail to come to a final resolution. Yesterday, Prof. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, human development, presented her views on one of these debates — the juvenile death penalty. Brumberg delivered a lecture titled “Rethinking the Juvenile Death Penalty” in the Libe Cafe in Olin Library.

Brumberg spoke about her new book, Kansas Charlie: History of a Boy Murderer. Already widely known in the human development field for her book Fasting Girls, regarding the crisis of anorexia, Brumberg’s latest work chronicles the 1892 execution of “Kansas” Charlie Miller. The state of Wyoming hanged Miller for a double murder he committed when he was 15 years old.

Brumberg began with the introduction to her text, recounting the story of Miller as a downtrodden New York City orphan. After a few years in the city, the orphanage shipped him to the West, where he dreamed of becoming the cowboy he emulated from ‘dime’ novels.

Unfortunately, the boy failed to accomplish much of anything and eventually shot and killed two middle-class boys while in a rail car heading across the Nebraska-Wyoming border. Brumberg said that Miller’s subsequent confession was “seduced by a journalist that put words in this mouth.” Despite his youth, a Wyoming jury sentenced Miller to death by hanging.

“It’s not a mystery the way I feel,” Brumberg said, regarding her opposition to the juvenile death penalty.

Brumberg then seized the opportunity to connect the events of “Kansas” Charlie with the current debate over the juvenile death penalty.

“There is a sense of deja vu. The argument is still going on today,” she said. Brumberg presented statistics showing that the criminal justice system charges about 200,000 minors as adults each year. “America is the only country in the world to have the juvenile death penalty,” she said.

Brumberg then shifted the focus of her speech to the upcoming Supreme Court review of the juvenile death penalty, and her hope for its abolishment. The court will consider the question in Simmons v. Roper. Brumberg hinted that the fate of the case relied on Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s swing vote and jokingly invited anyone with a connection to the judge to “give her a copy of my book.”

The students of Brumberg’s HD 455: Bad Boys Historical Perspective class also attended the lecture. All of Brumberg’s students complimented their professor’s presentation.

“In the lecture she was an author, instead of a professor,” said Adam Savin ’04. “I felt that provided a more personal view of the material, rather than a sometimes buffered classroom setting.”

Jaffa Panken ’05 expressed an appreciation of Brumberg’s passion toward the subject matter. “I really enjoyed reading the book,” she said. “It is an interesting application of human development in politics.”

With the upcoming Supreme Court review of the juvenile death penalty, Brumberg’s book takes its place amidst a debate sure to continue into the future.

Archived article by Steve Angelini

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