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      Opposing 'Natural Death' for Juveniles by John Hagedorn

      John Hagedorn is Professor of Criminology, Law, & Justice at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He is author of several books, most recently A World of Gangs, and has written extensively on gangs, violence, and stereotyping. He was served as an expert witness in more than 50 gang related trials.

      Please watch the video and sign the petition for clemency at Clemency for Jacqueline Montanez.

      Opposing "Natural Death" for Juveniles

      Only the US and Somalia have refused to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This means the US is one of only two countries in the world that allow juveniles to be sentenced to “life-without-parole (JLWOP). This country currently has more than 2500 inmates serving “natural death” for crimes they committed before they were 16.  The US Supreme Court will take up the issue in their spring session and Amnesty International has launched a major campaign on the issue.

      In Illinois, there are 99 such prisoners and only one is female, Jacqueline Montañez. A look at her case helps us understand not only the injustice of JLWOP, but much deeper problems in our legal system. It highlights an increasingly punitive culture towards children and particularly non-white youth.

      For prosecutors and the media, Jacqueline Montañez was the perfect example of the violent “super-predator.” In 1992, she and two other female gang members killed two rival male gang members. A video of her showing her “brazenly” flashing gang signs as she was booked in the police station was played again and again to jurors.  Her crimes, the prosecutor pontificated, were such that “would make Al Capone proud.” Her killing was proof, prosecutors said falsely, that women were becoming as violent as men. In the midst of the gang wars of the 1990s, Montañez was called “the teen queen of criminals.”

      For some defendants like Montañez the only facts that matter to the court are pictures of the crime scene and the label of “gang member.” Their crimes are so “heinous” that they are framed as “monsters” to juries, incapable of human emotions or change.  They are the “other” and the jury is ”us” in an age-old story of good vs. evil.  Complaints about police misconduct and legal “technicalities” —  like due process — take a back seat to juries’ deeply racialized fears of dark-skinned violent criminals. In real life, defendants like Jacqueline Montañez are guilty until proven innocent.

      But let’s look beyond the stereotypes.

      If a woman kills someone not her spouse or her children, research tells us it is almost certain her childhood will turn up physical or sexual abuse.  No one, not even Montañez ‘s public defense attorneys, asked her about her childhood. Indeed, from the age of seven Montañez was raped and beaten by her step-father and put to work in his gang drug business. She ran away repeatedly and was routinely returned to her dad by social services. When she finally escaped, was it a surprise she joined the rival gang of her step-father? And those gang members she shot, you may have already guessed, were members of her step-dad’s gang. “It wasn’t them I wanted to shoot” she told me emotionally. “It was my step-father.”  But her sentence was automatic. No one asked about her life of horror. “There was no childhood in this child” she said in one of her poems.

      The way she was treated by police is all too familiar to Hispanic youth in Chicago’s Humboldt Park. Since she was a “vicious” gang member, the police and courts proceeded without much concern for legal safeguards. The detectives who arrested her threatened to drop her in the territory of the gang whose members she had shot if she did not confess. This is a common tactic by Area 5 Chicago Police officers who have been cited for more than 50 cases of coercion and frame-ups.  One of the officers who arrested her, Detective Ernest Halvorson, cost the City of Chicago $21 million to settle a case when he coerced a gang member into a false confession. Police also refused to allow Ms. Montañez ‘s mother to see her until she signed a confession the night of her arrest.

      This blatantly illegal tactic got her conviction reversed. The prosecution appealed the dismissal all the way to the US Supreme Court and when that failed, the judge simply stated that the higher courts didn’t have all the facts and reinstated her confession!  She was convicted again and sent to die in prison. I’m “a baby in a cement casket,” Montañez wrote.

      The prosecution could succeed in these tactics because Jacqueline Montañez was tried as a cartoon-character not a human being. George Lakoff points out that caricatures,  like how Ms. Montañez was portrayed,   “have no independent reality. They are understood only through the frames and cultural narratives imposed on them.” The frame of the “evil gang member” was so strong that it never occurred to anyone to think of her as a rape and incest victim. She wasn't a person; she was a stereotype.

      But if we are going to look at people as stereotypes, what about the other faces at her trial?  The detectives, we’ve already seen, were stereotypes of TV cops, coercing confessions whenever they could. The lead prosecutor, William Gamboney, apparently thought so highly of police coercion that he became the defense attorney for Jon Burge, the infamous Chicago cop who tortured gang members for decades.   And what about her judge, John J. Mannion? This former police detective was a character witness for Burge at his federal perjury trial. Reading the trial transcripts reminds me of another famous Chicago judge, Julius Hoffman, who exclaimed:  “We are not running a circus. This happens to be a court.” You could have fooled me.

      The automatic sentence of life without parole allowed the court to legally disregard any mitigating evidence.  The juvenile justice system, founded on the assumption that youth should be treated differently from adults, now processes serious juvenile crime as a matter for adult court. The Supreme Court will look at evidence of what we know about adolescent brain development and other issues when it examines the constitutionality of JLWOP this spring. But the trial of Jacqueline Montañez lays bare the demonization of minority youth that underlies public acceptance of police coercion and neglect of basic rights.

      Jacqueline Montañez is not a cartoon character; she is an impressive 35 year-old woman who has been incarcerated for more than 20 years. Her life has had many turns and she is a fierce advocate for her fellow inmates and young people.  She takes full responsibil­ity for what she did as a 15 year old. She has the backing of many leaders in the Puerto Rican community and Northwestern University Law School’s Bluhm Legal Clinic. An online petition invites readers’ signatures of support to Illinois’ Governor to grant her clemency.  Ms. Montañez knows she can’t bring back the victims, Hector Reyes and Jimmy Cruz.  She has seen it all and now wants to help youth resist gangs. “I did what they say I did” she says.  “But I’m not who they say I am.”

      The manner in which Jacqueline Montañez was demonized is standard operating procedure for US media, police, and prosecution. As Jose Lopez, Executive Director of Chicago’s Puerto Rican Cultural Center said, “There are thousands of Jacqueline Montañezes.”  It will be a measure of justice if the Supreme Court overturns all 2500 sentences of life without parole for juveniles. But justice demands that we also expose the demonization of minority youth that turns justice into a cruel charade.

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