When should a teenage killer be viewed with sympathy? The New York Times broached that issue yesterday with a long profile of Jeffrey Conroy, recently convicted in the case of the stabbing death of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero. While press accounts have focused on Conroy and his friends' belligerence and bigotry, the Times attempted to put a human face on the teen by fleshing out his background:
He turned 19 in January and it shows. Though dressed in a green prisoner's uniform, he still has the face, the demeanor and the vocabulary of a boyish teenager. ...
He said he feels sadness and sympathy for the Luceros, and for Mr. Lucero's younger brother, Joselo Lucero, a presence in the courtroom throughout the trial. "I would just look at him and then I would look away," Mr. Conroy said. "I feel bad for him. I got a brother, too. I couldn't imagine him dying."
So what should we make of Conroy's world, the nature or nurture that produced such inexplicable violence?
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Mr. Conroy's life was typical of what it's like growing up in the predominantly white middle-class towns and villages of eastern Long Island, but his experiences also had shades of diversity. He listened to Jay-Z, Nas and other black hip-hop artists. His half-sister from his father's previous marriage is part Puerto Rican. One of his best friends is Turkish.
"I'm nothing like what the papers said about me," Mr. Conroy said. "I'm not a white supremacist or anything like that. I'm not this serious racist kid everyone thinks I am."
Whether or not Conroy is a "serious racist" may to some degree be a semantic question. Or maybe this distinction between "serious" racism and the not-so-serious kind grows out of something deeper at work in the lives of kids like Conroy. The brutal murder of Marcelo Lucero tests the limits of public compassion, especially when we're forced to wrestle with the fact that these are youth--living in typical towns, leading otherwise typical lives--charged with carrying out acts that seem incomprehensible. Do we recognize the America in which a typical high schooler listens to Nas and emblazons his skin with a swastika tattoo "as a joke?"
Pull back the frame a little and we have a question of how young people accused of crime are portrayed in the media. About two decades ago, another crime in New York, the sensational Central Park jogger case, put a different lens on a group of black youth, who were essentially tried by the media before they ever faced a jury. Condemned as savage predators, they were doomed from the start thanks to what we now know were botched confessions. Not until 2002 would they finally have their convictions dismissed, well after the state had robbed them of their youth. It was another case of the press vilifying and distorting images of young people caught up in the criminal justice system--deviants, "super-predators," the child-monsters who represent an older generation's hidden neuroses and fears.
How much sympathy does Conroy deserve? Whatever your personal disposition, remember that the same day his profile ran, there were legions of other youth locked up and banished, far outside the media spotlight, for whom the question of compassion won't even be raised.