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Hundreds of students and community members came out for a vigil held for the Barnard College freshman Tessa Majors, who was stabbed to death in New York City's Morningside Park.
Analysis

What Have We Learned Since the Central Park Jogger Case?

An eerily similar crime in New York this week will test public attitudes about juvenile justice.

A young white woman is mugged and stabbed “in cold blood,” the mayor says, in a New York City park at nightfall. A group of teenagers from Harlem is accused, and one—in this case, a 13-year-old—admits to being involved under police questioning.

It sounds a lot like the infamous 1989 Central Park jogger case, but it happened just Wednesday. Authorities have not disclosed the names or races of the suspects, and this time the victim died. Her name was Tessa Majors, a freshman at Barnard College interested in journalism and music whose band had just performed its first big show in New York and who was only a week away from finishing up her first semester. She was fatally stabbed in Morningside Park, which is near the Columbia University and Barnard campuses; her friends and fellow students remain in shock and mourning, holding vigils and demanding more security.

Yet much has changed in the 30 years between these two shocking cases. For one, New York City is far safer now: Despite the killing of Majors and the fear it has generated, this is the safest big city in America, according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. For another, there is deeper scientific knowledge of adolescents who commit, or are accused of committing, crimes—especially ones as young as 13, who have just graduated from elementary school the previous year.

According to recent studies of teens’ behavior, their “executive function” (meaning their ability to control their impulses and to think ahead about consequences) won’t really be functioning until they are in their mid-20s. Yet their risk-seeking behavior peaks around puberty.

“The saying goes that they get the accelerator long before they get a brake,” said Jennifer Woolard, an expert on adolescent brain development at Georgetown University.

Woolard also noted that teenagers are far more susceptible to peer influence—which is relevant given that the attack on Majors, like many crimes committed by juveniles, was allegedly carried out by a group of at least three teens. And they are less capable of understanding their rights during police questioning—which raises questions about how and why the 13-year-old has already waived his right to remain silent and confessed.

Youth advocates are not suggesting such a crime is acceptable or that its perpetrators should not be punished, just that their ages should be taken into account when deciding what that punishment should be.

This growing understanding of why children commit offenses and what special rights they should therefore get is precisely why New York state in 2017, after decades of gridlock, raised the age at which juveniles can be prosecuted as adults, from 16 to 18. (It was one of the last states to do so.)

It’s also why the U.S. Supreme Court has over the past decade repeatedly ruled that automatically sending juveniles to prison for life with no chance of parole is unconstitutional, because they are uniquely able to grow and change. Public attitudes have veered away from the tough-on-crime approach that mandated long sentences and contributed to the U.S. having the highest incarceration rates in the world.

But juvenile defense lawyers in New York City are still dreading the public outcry that will likely come when people realize the child accused of Majors’ killing has been charged in family court, where the potential sentence he’ll face will be much less severe, instead of in adult criminal court.

“I’m just so nervous that we’ll soon be hearing about the need for a ‘Tessa’s Law’” to make sure a 13-year-old doesn’t get off easy again, said one New York public defender whose team will be defending the boy.

In New York state, under a 1978 law passed in haste amid a tabloid frenzy surrounding a teenage murderer, kids as young as 13 can still be charged as adults in murder cases. But to do so, prosecutors must be able to prove that the act was depraved or intentional. So far the police have disclosed no evidence to suggest that this homicide was premeditated or even that the 13-year-old was the primary perpetrator.

Marcy Mistrett, the C.E.O. of the Campaign for Youth Justice, says the larger question is how society now views what justice would look like in cases like these. “We have a tragic loss of life, and acknowledging that, and grieving for this young woman, is so important,” she said. “Now we have to decide what we’re willing to do with a 13-year-old. Do we hand down a 30-year sentence and just forget about him?”

Vincent Schiraldi, former commissioner of the New York City probation department and now a professor at Columbia himself, said he is “deeply saddened by the loss of one of our students.”

But, he said, he would urge the public not to repeat the rush to judgment that characterized the Central Park jogger case, which resulted in five innocent teens of color spending years in prison.

“Let’s not compound this week’s tragedy,” Schiraldi said, “with a flawed, counter-productive and disparate justice-system response.”

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Eli Hager is a staff writer covering juvenile justice, family court, indigent defense, fines and fees and other issues; he also works on the "Life Inside" series of essays by incarcerated writers. He was a Livingston Award finalist for his 2017 investigation of the for-profit prisoner transport industry and is a three-time finalist for the Education Writers Association awards.