Eight-year-old Amber Sadiq was killed in Brooklyn a few days ago, when an empty school bus rolled through an intersection and pinned her to a street lamp. The bus was unattended while the driver went to lunch, leaving the doors unlocked. An 8-year-old boy had boarded the bus and released the emergency brake. He jumped off again when it started rolling. “He wanted to drive the bus,” according to a police detective. “The bus started to move. He got scared. He saw a crossing guard jumping up and down. The bus stopped after hitting a pole.” City medical examiners ruled Amber’s death an accident. According to the New York Times, “Industry experts said buses are intended to be driven to and from their yards, not parked on city streets.” Furthermore, the Times reports, “to avoid stress on transmission systems, many buses must be left in neutral.”
Nevertheless, the boy has been taken into custody by the Department of Juvenile Justice and charged with negligent homicide. A judge has ordered a psychiatric evaluation. “The conduct he engaged in constitutes the basis of a criminal act,” declared the prosecutor.
I generally don’t comment on cases before all the evidence has been presented in a trial, but if there was ever a time to make an exception, this would seem to be it. Indeed, Amber’s father has decried the charge, saying “he is a baby himself,” and that “the question is why the vehicle was not more secure.” It will be interesting to see whether this case really proceeds much further in the courts–the prosecution has discretion to dismiss. One must hope they will reconsider, given a day or two of deep breathing.
That said, I remain troubled by the way this case has played out in the media. The boy’s full name was published in no less than the Times. True to form, the New York Post spun the story for its potential as a Victorian epic. Amber was not just a tragic victim whose bright light was extinguished by the cruelest of circumstances; she was made a foil for the boy’s depicted worthlessness. Although the two children lived within a block of each other, their “lives were clearly on divergent paths.” She was “eager” and “popular,” an A student who had “ambitions,” an unfulfilled destiny to “follow her brainy older sister into elite Stuyvesant HS.”
In contrast, the boy’s record of chronic absence (forty times in a year) and tardiness (fifteen) was enumerated in great detail, as though truancy were the inevitable predictor of the homicidally inclined. Repeat Offender, screamed the headline in the Post–“repeat,” because he’d been suspended from school for having tried to board a parked school bus once before. “Wild Boy,” began the subtitle of the story. “Restless prankster.” “Troubled boy.”
It is true that the frequency of the boy’s truancy had led his school to report his family to the Administration for Children’s Services at some point; but that agency (not without its own biblical epics of oversight) apparently had found no grounds for action–which in any event would be a civil matter. Moreover, if one were pressed to assign fault in this accident, guardianship (of both the bus and the boy) should be implicated–rather than the intentionality of such a very young minor.
I do wonder what it says about us as a society that an 8-year-old would be criminally charged in such a case. There’s a kind of blind, fill-in-the-blank application of the law that we should find troubling. Criminal homicide is a felony and carries a potential eighteen-month sentence for this child. According to the New York Consolidated Penal Law: S 125.10, “A person is guilty of criminally negligent homicide when, with criminal negligence, he causes the death of another person.” It is important to understand that in criminal as well as civil law, causation must be “direct” and “proximate.” Negligence, moreover, is generally defined as “gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the actor’s situation.”
David Feige, the former trial chief of the Bronx defender, has just published a book titled Indefensible, in which he examines the way media narratives are increasingly driving how prosecutors, lawyers and judges administer justice. “Deviation from a standard of care?” he said when I asked him about Amber Sadiq’s case. “What is reasonable prudence for an 8-year-old? The entire character of an 8-year-old is one of carelessness. He’s a kid! There has to be some distinction between a child and an adult.” To Feige, “the worst part is that he’s been taken away from his home and held as a criminal. This is a classic judicial response in a high-profile case. Do they seriously think he’s going to flee? If Amber’s parents understand what’s going on, it’s hard to understand why the criminal justice system does not.”
There is no doubt that this case is a tragedy and a trauma for all concerned. But we should also examine the mythic or cultural scripts that seem to be driving our sense of public resolution. A rather meanspirited subtext permeates not just the print media but television, cable and the blogosphere: on the one hand, the construction of a class of perpetrators who are Born Bad, who are conceptually and thus literally indefensible, who must be taken into custody and confined as young and as quickly as possible. On the other hand, a class of victims who are innocent angels in that doomed way that fetuses and Terri Schiavo have too often been depicted: innocence as already ruined, passive, dead, an endless inspiration for retribution, a vessel for vengeance. Iconic Good played against The Evil Seed, breathless screeds imbued with that odd mixture of hatred and delight that so animates anything Fox TV touches.
It was precisely this sort of inflammatory, unkind, “wild child” hysteria that swept the minor boys in the Central Park jogger case into prison–only to be fully, if much too quietly, exonerated years later. There is a reason we are supposed to pursue issues rather than images in courts of law; pursue proof rather than apocalypse.