President Trump has a simple solution to Chicago’s crime problem: Get tough. When I hear that, I think of my encounter with a murderer some 20 years ago.
The killer was 16 years old and on trial as an adult, and I was on the jury. We found him guilty. I’ll never forget his reaction. He didn’t seem angry or upset; rather, he didn’t seem to understand.
As I say, he was 16. I’ve forgotten his name, but I can’t forget that.
At the time of the young man’s trial — I’ll call him William — Chicago’s homicide rate was higher than it is now and a get-tough approach was in vogue. William was brought into the courtroom, at the Cook County Criminal Courts Building, and there was an audible gasp. He looked 13. He was African-American, about 5’6″ and slight of build, with a placid expression.
The facts of the case, unfortunately, didn’t square with William’s youthful appearance. He had executed a gang rival who stole drug money, shooting him once from 15 feet and then moving in for the kill.
William denied nothing. On the contrary, he seemed eager to explain.
A cop testified that he bought William a McDonald’s lunch, a small kindness that helped elicit a full confession at the police station. When William again confessed to the killing in court, his lawyer tried to coax him into saying he had felt in danger from the victim. But William earnestly explained that this wasn’t true, undercutting his lawyer’s defense strategy.
Those of us on the jury didn’t deliberate long. The idea of a false confession was unknown to us and didn’t come up, and our discussion didn’t align with stereotypes. Two white female jurors from the suburbs initially voted not guilty, reluctant to send a 16-year-old to prison. Less sympathetic were two African-American female jurors from gang-plagued areas of the city. One shook her head and said, “He’s a gangster.”
We left the jury room feeling we had done the inevitable. “12 Angry Men” we were not. More like a “Dozen Dispirited Jurors.”
But then, as our verdict was announced, there was William’s unexpected reaction. Just incomprehension. He looked around, but he had no apparent supporters in the room.
I’ve often wondered what happened to William. Is he still in prison? If so, the state is spending $38,268 a year to keep him locked up, according to the Vera Institute. Trump would argue that the money is well spent. However, it would also pay somebody’s college tuition.
Would a summer job have helped William? What if he’d had a strong mentor? Or was William the inevitable byproduct of defective genes raised in a toxic environment? Trump would likely take the latter view.
Trump has argued against “politically correct” solutions to violent crime. His spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders says Chicago’s crime problem is “probably driven by morality more than anything else.” And a Trump biographer, Michael D’Antonio, says the president “has professed a belief in the superiority of his genes.”
This is a man who fails to appreciate his own good fortune. He was, in the classic joke, “born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”
William could have used a little of that good fortune. Perhaps a 16-year-old so easily influenced by a lunch from McDonald’s would have responded even more positively, throughout his young life, to more meaningful acts of kindness. William was not born on third base, not even close. But a summer job or a real mentor — the sort of more compassionate solutions Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promoted — what difference might such small good fortunes have made in his life?
William might have found his way to first base, safe, before he was lost to the gangs.
Jim Holland is a marketing communications executive who has lived in the Chicago area for 57 years.