I admittedly was caught off guard twice over the last week or so. Distracted by the gorgeous fanfare of the international Olympics, I did not expect Georgia to brazenly invade Ossetia. But another thing caught me off guard, right here in Hidalgo County: the conviction of Christopher Hughes.
Christopher’s conviction was surprising, and depressing. First, he was convicted of killing his mom and got 45 years; secondly, he was 16 when the crime was committed. I think 45 years in prison for something one does at 16 is excessive, nuts, but I admit I still live in the past, when there were proud juvenile courts and some commitment to saving youth from the adult criminal justice system. I know. I live in the years of Jane Addams and the advent of social work, not the fiercely retributive, zero-tolerance, sock-‘em world we live in now.
Although often a maverick, I am mainstream enough to condemn killing. And if someone kills his mom, I think the state should step in and take appropriate action. But Christopher was not an adult criminal, despite the prosecutor declaring him one; this was a kid in a very troubled moment in his teen years. A father figure in Christopher’s life died of cancer in February, 2007. He was the husband of Laura Doyle, the teen’s mom, and within months Christopher was in police custody.
The Monitor reported, “In the months after [the father’s] death, the relationship of Laura Doyle and her son quickly grew volatile. Deputies responded to several domestic violence calls at the trailer home they shared, where the sheriffs found mother and son fighting about his drug use and past attempts to steal a family car. In March, Laura Doyle received two years of probation for felony drug possession. She had previously been convicted of reckless conduct, resisting arrest and unlawfully carrying a weapon.”
February and March must have been insane months for Christopher. Let me play Jane Addams, the founder of modern social work and of the now fast-disintegrating juvenile justice system: Where was our state and the help from the brave authorities during those two months? It isn’t like Hidalgo County didn’t know…authorities responded to “several domestic violence calls” during that time. Christopher was 16 and his father was dead and his mother was wacko and maybe scary, and now Hidalgo County, which didn’t intervene properly with social workers, feels righteous giving the kid a “fair trial” and 45 years in lock-up, reminding everyone not to kill their emotionally disturbed mothers.
Since I started this column by saying I was surprised by things recently, readers might ask why I was surprised by the jury’s verdict. Didn’t child advocate Jane Addams die in 1935? Well, here’s more on the conviction. Toward the trial’s conclusion — I followed the excellent reporting from The Monitor’s Jeremy Roebuck — it became obvious that the prosecution’s case was disintegrating. First, there was no physical evidence against the kid, and the body had decayed badly before being found.
Secondly, Christopher’s lawyer made a brilliant case that the sheriff’s deputies were virtually fixated on Christopher, pressuring teen friends to testify against him. Several friends testified that the deputies coaxed them for evidence against Christopher, and they said that things they told the deputies were massaged in the written reports. “They came at me like they were trying to scare me,” said Christopher’s best friend. “Like I had done something wrong.” (The Monitor, August 8th)
Thirdly, the sheriffs and prosecutors dropped to the bottom of the barrel and used a jail house snitch against Christopher. (The national Innocence Project — see their site — claims this jailhouse snitch practice has contributed to many false convictions.)
A convicted killer being held in the juvenile center testified that he had heard Christopher admit to the murder. This sort of evidence is unacceptable and should be inadmissible, and the prosecution should lose the case for trying to sway a jury with it. A 16-year-old like Christopher is expected to act tough in jail. Part of surviving there is to say you are a killer. Jailhouse talk, reported by a convicted teenage murderer, is hardly a “confession.”
Fourthly, The Monitor reported other possible suspects: Laura Doyle had told police before her death that she feared someone was “watching” her and “breaking in.” Also a 22-year-old convicted drug dealer, who once sold drugs to her, was found with a gun which might have been the weapon used. And Christopher’s older half-brother, who “discovered” the corpse, took pictures of it and called friends before calling the police.
I was surprised…This case had “reasonable doubts” stamped all over the package. And another journalist told me that two “alternate jurors,” (back-ups who watched the whole trial) said they too were surprised.