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Rehabilitation may be possible for some young killers

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The hardest to accept was Angelina.

She was the 2-year-old who in January 2013 was among five family members gunned down by a sixth, Nehemiah Griego, then 15, her brother.

Although none of the murders was easy to understand or forgive, no matter the explanation, what was almost incomprehensible and damning was that anyone, let alone her big brother, could look into her eyes, see her tiny body curled in bed and unload a .22-caliber rifle into her forehead, chest and back.

In those dark morning hours in the Griego home on Long Lane SW, Nehemiah also killed sister Jael, 5, brother Zephaniah, 9, mother Sarah, 40, and finally father, Greg, 51, who had arrived home hours after the carnage had begun.

Nehemiah later sent a cellphone photo of his handiwork to a girlfriend, went to lunch and then to church before the bodies were found.

In ardent, sometimes vicious, arguments across kitchen tables and social media last week after Nehemiah learned that his age and amenability had earned him a judge’s measured mercy, it was Angelina’s death that shook even the staunchest supporter of compassion for a child killer.

It’s understandable. Because almost nothing in the sad and scary tale of Nehemiah Griego is understandable.

GRIEGO: Killed five members of his family

GRIEGO: Killed five members of his family

Nehemiah, now 18, had been charged under New Mexico’s “serious youthful offender” law, which means his case has slogged through the legal system for the past three years as if he were an adult. That charge exposed him to as much as 200 years in prison if he was found guilty. A plea agreement decreased his exposure to 120 years.

But after a seven-day hearing consisting largely of dueling psychologists who had prodded Nehemiah’s callow and complex psyche, Presiding Children’s Court Judge John J. Romero – chosen by both sides to hear the case – determined Thursday that Nehemiah will serve just two years, because he is amenable to treatment and should be sentenced as a juvenile.

That means that Nehemiah, who is weeks away from his 19th birthday, will remain in a state juvenile facility under treatment, whatever that is, until his 21st birthday, at which point he will be returned to society as a free young man, his court records sealed.

Romero had sifted through the testimony that described the boy’s upbringing as being either loving and normal or bizarre, abusive and repressed. Nehemiah, the experts had testified, had a personality disorder that was either hard to treat or already improving under medication and treatment.

In either case, his brain was undeveloped, as all juvenile brains are, and, in Romero’s estimation, still able to be molded, reformed, saved. Legally, he ruled that the state had not met its burden under state law to prove by “clear and convincing” evidence that Nehemiah was not amenable to treatment.

For those of us who believe not all juveniles who commit horrible crimes are bad seeds and should be rehabilitated rather than warehoused and worsened in a crowded adult prison, it was a brave and reasoned decision by a judge known for his bravery and reason.

But for many, it was a revolting, horrifying choice, an affront to the memories of five dead family members, a portending of future murders at the hands of an incorrigible demon child, an affirmation that the judicial system is broken and far too lenient on the bad guys, even if those bad guys are boys.

Why should a teen who killed his family, including his baby sister, they argued, deserve a second chance?

Among those who took issue with Romero’s decision was Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg, whose prosecutors had fought for adult sanctions against Nehemiah. On Monday, Brandenburg announced her office will appeal, saying she appreciated the public’s outcry.

But what has troubled me most about that outcry is how violent, angry and unforgiving it has become. Many have become armchair psychologists, diagnosing Nehemiah as a psychopath. Many are soothsayers, predicting that Nehemiah surely will kill again. Many are judge, juror and executioner, not just for Nehemiah but all kids who kill – from the boys who bludgeoned two homeless men to death in a dirt lot to the boys who went “mobbing” through a neighborhood and shot and killed a man.

And many times, they may be right.

But missing in this debate is consideration that there is a reason adults and juveniles are treated differently in the criminal justice system. It’s because adults and juveniles are different, and that one should not so readily assign the behaviors and motivations of an adult to a juvenile, whose brain will not be fully developed until his or her mid-20s.

Kathleen Heide, a University of South Florida criminology professor and the author of the seminal book “Young Killers: The Challenge of Juvenile Homicide,” argues that not every homicidal kid remains a danger to society if given treatment. There is, she says, no natural-born killer.

“I don’t believe kids are born bad and are destined to kill,” she writes. “A lot of these kids are severely abused, and many kill out of desperation because they see no other way out or are terrified.”

Is this Nehemiah’s situation? There remains disagreement on that.

In a 2012 conversation with me, Judge Romero talked about the public’s perception that every violent teen is a “superpredator” who needs to be locked away.

“But we found out they are just not there,” he said. “There are those kids, but I can think of just a handful in my nine years on the bench as being such a danger to society that they needed extensive incarceration with no rehabilitation.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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