Lisa Richette discusses her book The Throwaway Children ; part 1
Lisa Richette, lawyer and judge, discusses her book "The Throwaway Children", published in 1969. She discusses issues of juvenile justice and the law regarding juveniles.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Lisa Richette "We all stand and smile a good morning to the judge. He nods, indicating that he is ready to begin. At the far end of the courtroom, a wall clock chimes 9:30. The chairs are still empty. Two doors open. The one opposite my desk is the entrance to watch. Out springs a slight black boy somewhere between eight and 10 years of age, dressed in the drab denim uniform of the detention center. His eyes glitter--I cannot yet tell whether with ferocity or tears. Shepherded by a court officer, he is led to the railing. He looks back, just in time to see a shabbily dressed man and woman enter. The man makes a half gesture of greeting to the boy; the woman merely nods grimly as she sits down in the front row seat to which she has been directed. 'Are you this boy's parents?' I ask. 'I'm his mother. I'm Mrs. Preston.' The woman's voice is gruff. 'That's his stepfather.' Her finger jabs the air in the direction of the man, but she does not move her head. 'Julius Preston, aged nine', the judge reads aloud from his portfolio of papers, 'Charged with carrying a concealed deadly weapon.' What kind of weapon does a nine year old boy usually have? A penknife? 'No, your Honor,' I reply. 'Not this boy. He was carrying his own atom bomb.'"
Studs Terkel And thus a sequence from the prologue of a remarkable, disturbing, quite important book, "Throwaway Children", read by its author, Mrs. Lisa Richette. Mrs. Richette has been assistant district attorney for a time in Philadelphia. And now, no doubt, attorney for the defense in many of these cases. Juvenile court was her beat. We're talking now about a case in Philadelphia. The case of this boy. It's not, it - unusual, the aspects, and yet typical, as it were?
Lisa Richette Yes. Only unusual in that this boy had worked out a scheme for building what he thought was an atom bomb that would blow up the whole world. He was really able, you know, to externalize all the hostility and aggression in him in this box that he carried around all the time. But a lot of the children have just this same kind of feeling inside of them, bottled up, and they're never able to express it quite the way this boy did.
Lisa Richette Yes.
Lisa Richette Yes.
Lisa Richette Yes.
Lisa Richette Oh, yes. It's always been that way in the juvenile court, Studs. If I could just just give you a little bit of the philosophical background to this court. You know, until 1899, when the first juvenile court was established right here in Chicago, in Cook County Illinois--
Lisa Richette Right, and Judge Julian Mack, two marvelous people. Before that, children were treated exactly the same way that adults were. In fact, there's a recorded case in England in the early 1800s - I believe, it was 1805 - where an eight year old boy was hung for the crime of stealing a letter from a mailbox. Any crime against property in that da- in that time was, you know, considered a very serious offense. So, these children were just put into prisons and they were sent off to to various places in the same way that adults did. And the movement first began because people were appalled at the fact that these children were in jails with adults. So, the first thing they did was to take the kids out of the jails and put them in their own separate places. But then, Jane Addams - and she really was the one who had this insight - saw that just putting them in a different place wasn't quite enough, that you really ought to have a different system for dealing with them. So she wanted to have a special court for children. However, the lawyers got hold of this concept, and they had to find a precedent for it, you know. Lawyers simply can not do anything out of the blue, so to speak. There has to be some replica or model for it in past history. So, they searched and searched and, unfortunately, they found a terrible kind of precedent for this source of power. And that was in the courts of Chancery. These were the King's courts in in England that were established to rival the common law courts. And in those courts the King's judges, the Chancellors, had absolute power over the estates of orphans, and so forth. And this is where the idea of the juvenile court's source of power came, from that concept, which, had a very old Latin name, 'Parens patriae:' the state as the father. And it's interesting that Mr. Justice Fortas in the historic opinion of Gault which which really marked the first revolution--
Lisa Richette Right. In that opinion, Justice Fortas, giving a very, you know, erudite kind of background to the juvenile court, calls this a murky doctrine, you know. A doctrine that that was that was shrouded in very ugly past history, but it's from that power that the juvenile courts have developed into sort of big daddies running a whole child's life, stepping in, doing all kinds of things.
Lisa Richette Exactly.
Lisa Richette Exactly. Yes, in fact until this Gault case in 1967 - the opinion was handed down on May 15, 1967 - there had been no review by the United States Supreme Court of any juvenile court case.
Studs Terkel Oh! So the U.S. Supreme Court could never review no matter - Now in many - we have to face up to simple fact that many judges - You you you've had encounters here with a judge who is quite humane, Judge Hoffmann, you mentioned.
Lisa Richette Yes.
Lisa Richette That's right. The problem with with the raising of appeals was that these children never really had lawyers in that court. They were not entitled to lawyers. Oh maybe one percent of all the kids ever had a lawyer, and there was no machinery, you know, for for an appeal. In the Gault case, for example, there were no stenographic notes of what went on.
Lisa Richette Yes, that that that case involved a 14-year old boy who lived in a very small town in Arizona, Sun City, Arizona. He was on probation, because he had been standing next to a boy who had been picking pockets or stealing handbags, and they put him on probation not because he was guilty, but just because they thought it would be good for him to be on probation. They do this to a lot of kids. So, things were going along well, but Gerald's next door neighbor, who viewed it as kind of a troublemaker - and this happens, you know, a kid gets a reputation. He's been in court and then everybody is down on him - His next door neighbor received several obscene telephone calls, and she thought she recognized Gerald's voice. So she called his probation officer, this being a small town she knew who he was, and reported it. The probation officer promptly went out, picked up Gerald right off the street and took him to a detention center. When his mother came home, she she didn't know where he was, she found out, and she was told to come back the next morning for what she thought was just going to be an interview. Instead, she went into the court office of the judge and there sat the judge and the probation officer, and the boy, and Mrs. Gault. And the judge said that he would have to think this case over for a few days and he would have another little meeting with them. There was no stenographer present. Mrs. "X", the neighbor who had made this report, never showed up in court. So naturally, the mother felt it wasn't very serious, so she went home. And a few days later she went back and at that point, the judge announced that having considered the case very thoroughly he had decided that what was best for this boy was that he should be committed to a reformatory for six years. And, of course, the mother was very upset and she wanted to know what could be done and she was told getting a lawyer would be an exercise in futility because under the Arizona juvenile court law, as I said before, there was no real machinery for taking an appeal. Nevertheless, she contacted a wonderful lawyer, a woman by the name of Mrs. Amelia Lewis, who was working with the American Civil Liberties Union. And Mrs. Lewis took the appeal up to the Arizona Supreme Court, lost, just as she expected she would. And then was able to get the assistance of two very brilliant constitutional lawyers, Norman Dorsen, who's a professor at NYU, and Melvin Wulf, who is the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. And these two lawyers and Mrs. Lewis filed a Petition for Certiorari with the United States Supreme Court, and to everybody's surprise that petition was granted.
Lisa Richette Absolutely.
Lisa Richette Well, they they there were appeals in Pennsylvania, for example, one court - one case went up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1954, but the Supreme Court just wouldn't move at all from the legal position of that court. The Gault case is very important for the reason that you just said, that it establishes the right to an appeal. It also established several other things that were crucial. First, that a child was a person within the meaning of the fourteenth amendment. Up to that point, children had kind of been Orwellian unpersons, you know. They were not entitled to the protections of the fourteenth Amendment and therefore the Bill of Rights. Because, the theory was, this wasn't a criminal court; it was a place where a child was going to be helped even though help sometimes meant being locked up for six to eight years.
Studs Terkel As I'm talk- as I'm talking to Lisa Richette and this concerns her book, "The Throwaway Children", and her experiences and very vivid and highly emotional ones, too. You're involved - you have to be detached, you're Assistant D.A. can get terribly involved in the juvenile court in Philadelphia. So we come to a time today, perhaps more critical than ever when it comes to the attitude toward children.
Studs Terkel Oh, indeed. I have a feeling that the the less groups that we may legitimately hate in our society, you know, it's now - all the roots of prejudice are sort of withering away. I mean, people cannot be openly anti-Semitic or anti-Negro or anti-Black or or really even anti-Communist or anti-Red without being considered bigots. But, all of this hostility is somehow, I believe, shifted over to youth. There is generally, you know, a hostility between adults and young people for a lot of reasons. Young people are able to live out things which, perhaps in our own fantasy life, we repressed--
Lisa Richette Yes, I think envy is very important thing. I know, for example, there was one juvenile court judge in Philadelphia who had been - had an awful childhood. His parents had placed him in one military school after another and he would just look at these kids who had had the audacity, you know, to run away or to steal something or to talk back to a teacher. And the rage in his face and voice was such he would be shaking, you know.
Lisa Richette Yes.
Lisa Richette Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. The the majority of the of the crimes, and this is true of adults too, you know. The crimes of violence against persons are are a much smaller percentage of the total, but they're the ones, of course, that are most horrifying and and scary, you know, to the general public, so they are publicized and exploited. But the crimes against property the children engage in are are, you know, have as serious consequences as the ones that the adults do. In fact, some of the things that children do are executed with such kind of freedom that they get off and they do things in a very daring way. We've had, you know, children who have committed unbelievable, you know, thefts and so forth, sometimes right under the nose of people in midday.
Lisa Richette Oh, absolutely. This is why on my my dust jacket there are two white children and one black child, because part of the problem with the American way of looking at this situation is that it tends to be conceptualized as a black, poor child problem and it really isn't. The the rate of arrests show, for example, that for drugs there's been a 233 percent increase in suburban arrests, and in rural arrests 230 percent. Whereas in the urban drug arrests, the increase has been 130 percent in the last year.
Studs Terkel Middle class suburbia. And in your experience in the courtroom, now as a lawyer for the defense before with the district attorney's office, what have you found? What reason? You have ma- you have some remarkable cases here, by the way, involving this [very beautiful?] little 14 year old girl--
Lisa Richette Yes.
Lisa Richette Oh, yes. I find that the the ghetto parents are somehow more accepting of the child's non-conventional, non-conforming behavior than the middle class parents are. The middle class parents either deny it completely, you know, and will fiercely engage a lawyer to to plead the child's cause on the grounds of the child's innocence of the offense. Even when the child is made a full confession to the lawyer and to the parents and so forth. They either deny it or they will admit it and overreact to it.
Lisa Richette Yes.
Lisa Richette Yes. And her mother said, you know, as she was being committed because the parents insisted that she be committed to a girls reformatory, which we all knew was the wrong place for Margo. Nevertheless, the mother said as she walked out of the hearing, "Good riddance to bad rubbish." It's absolutely remarkable.
Lisa Richette Yes.
Lisa Richette She was a status symbol. As long as this child was in this very good girls prep school and moving along this conventional little rut, everything was fine. The moment she stepped out - and this started a year or so before when the girl was expelled from this prep school - the parents knew that there was some reason for the expulsion but they just simply buried it away. And middle class parents tend to do that, you know, they - it's that phenomenon of dusting and spraying detergents and so forth. They think you can do this with people and you can't.
Lisa Richette Yes.
Lisa Richette Yes.
Lisa Richette Yes. This boy was a model student at one of our very best religious prep schools. He had never really in his whole life done one thing that was wrong. Except that when we then got into the case, the psychiatrist discovered - and I didn't go into this case at length because there was another boy who committed a murder who in some ways was even more interesting, that was Vincent, but the boy that you are talking about, Studs--
Lisa Richette Yes, the boy you're talking about, Studs, I want to say - and this isn't in the book - the psychiatric report showed that this boy had wet his bed until age 13 which is you know, really quite a symptom. But the parents had just overlooked it because he was getting good marks and he would say "yes sir" and "no ma'am". He was so courteous, even at the bar of the court, that you simply wanted to go up to him and shake him and say, "Look, you don't have to be so nice, you know. You can say what you really want to", but this boy, out of nowhere it would seem, strangled a three year-old little girl who lived down the street from him one summer afternoon when he had just finished taking his last exam at school. He came back, the child was on a bicycle, he took the child into his home, which was empty both of his parents were away at work, he strangled her, and he stuffed her body in the closet in the parent's cellar. And that, I thought, was interesting too. The body was neatly stacked away--
Lisa Richette Stacked away in a closet. And then the police, of course, combed the neighborhood when this child was discovered to be missing. And finally at 7 o'clock that night, some six hours later he went over to an officer and he said, "I think I know where you can find this little girl." And he led the officer to the cellar and opened the closet and there was a body.
Studs Terkel But he neatly stacked away. Of course, an image comes to mind immediately, does it not? The shoes of the little children and the teeth filed, the fillings, and the clothes in the concentration camps neatly stacked away.
Studs Terkel Perhaps, you know this is - and this, of course, comes to this overwhelming letter written by this remarkable man who was the father of the little girl who was killed. At the time I think it was in all the papers in America. And you have the letter here.
Lisa Richette Yes.
Lisa Richette Yes.
Lisa Richette Oh I know him very well. He's a brilliant, theoretical mathematician who has done original computer research and is now at Princeton. In fact, when I called him to ask if I could use the letter in the book. He said "Yes," he said. "And you can put my name on," he said. "Because it's probably the only valid thing I will ever have written in my whole life."
Studs Terkel Several hours, wrote this open letter to the people of Philadelphia. And the first part deals with his feelings of agony. And then he says, [some words and phrases removed by Studs] "How then, will you exclaim and horror can all this good comes to have such an ill result." He speaks of this boy now. He says because this boy's the most important thing now, speaking of his love for his little girl. He says, "The boy has always given excellent formal account of himself, honor student, gentle in manner, handsome, all the rest. And how do you explain all this. He says, "I plead it comes from a profound lack of comprehension and admission of the full range of feeling and emotion which is our common human heritage, and which, for convenience sake, we're so fond of denying." And he goes on to say "For the sake of a most immature passion for self-esteem, we wont to label everything prefer to stuff into a closet even as was done to my child" - as Lisa Rochette just explained - "as inhuman. So, for example, did we speak of the Nazis with the indescribably horrible concentration camps. It is in this way we permit ourselves to divide the fullness of each of our breasts and two dissociated parts. One part ascribe to the hero, the model boy, the ideal father. The other part of the criminal, the deranged, the villain." And he goes on to say, "I say that it should be openly recognized that every human being must by his nature express hostility, rage, fear, destructiveness, as well as love and creativeness and action." And further on he says, "There is something truly terrifying about the model child--Always well-behaved, never, seldom a bother to his parents, very clean, and basically, very unexpressive. Remember when you punish a child for being "bad" using a double edged sword, he's on one hand you help him learn the rules of society by which you will have to live, but on the other you're pushing underground feelings of destruction which, if not skillfully and understandingly guided into the open, will become deep-seated festers, eventually wreaking a terrible vengeance on the individual and society." And he said, "It cannot be an accident that Germany, which has perpetrated some of the most brutal horrors humanity has had to bear, has also been given to authoritarian and disciplinary upbringing." And he goes on to tell about the kid who throws the baseball at the window, who smacks the little brother without fully knowing quite why he does it. "It's very hard to admit there are simply no villains on whom to blame it all. There are simply lots of human beings, all with a similar set of fundamental drives, all needing control and love in order to function in society." And he goes on to speak of this double thread in man and at the end he says, "I now return to the murder of my daughter. I'm sure his parents have been God-fearing, upright citizens, too uneducated in matters of the human soul to have recognized the plight of their child during the years of his growth. They took naive pride in this constant", and he italicizes "constant good behavior, neat appearance, good performance at church and school. Never suspecting this very goodness was a serious cause for worry in the light of what must have been left unaccounted for. It is, I submit, much more profoundly worrisome that it's possible for this boy to go through his whole 15 years without anyone responsible for his upbringing, such as school or church, having taken note out of uncaring, or lack of understanding of the danger signals before the tragedy. Beware citizens, the human animal cannot be cheated forever." And this is a fantastic line--
Studs Terkel "It will have to love or kill." And he says, "My final word has to do with the operational machinery of justice. Had I caught the boy in the act, I would have wished to kill him. Now there is no undoing what's been done. I only wish to help him." And of course the memorable last two lines, "Let no feelings of caveman vengeance influence us. Let us rather help him who did so human a thing." Of course, that's--
Studs Terkel Yes.
Lisa Richette Yes. That is the whole point of my book. I took this Matthew Brady, that 16 year old boy, who who was involved in two terrible rapes, one of which caused a woman to go through the rest of her life with a broken pelvis and a broken back. And and the other rape resulted in the murder of an 82 year-old woman, and I took that boy very deliberately because he to me is the epitome of everything that people are afraid of, you know, in young people. And I try to explain how Matthew Brady came to those two moments, and what happened to Matthew Brady, because the law did not put him to death. Because of, you know, the brilliant and dedicated work of this boy--
Studs Terkel Here was a boy - and you're involved with this - big kid, way oversized for his age, somewhat retarded, it would seem, illiterate. And because he was not vindictively punished, there was rehabilitation.
Lisa Richette Yes, he he taught himself to read when he was in prison by looking at the calendar. He really thought that he was going to die within a three or four month period and he said, "I don't want to die a dummy. I want to have had the experience of reading before I die."
Lisa Richette Well, there was a moratorium in Pennsylvania on capital punishment for a year and in that year a great many cases were reviewed more thoroughly. And the Brady case, which had been tried in the heat of great public passion and outcry, was one of those that was reviewed and several errors had been committed and a new trial was granted. And at the new trial the testimony, which the lawyer had so eagerly tried to put in about this boy's background, was finally admitted. And then he was simply given a much lesser sentence. It wasn't first degree, it was reduced. And he is now almost out of prison. I think he's coming out in a few months. But he has become a star athlete, he has learned to read, and there's a very funny end to that story of Matthew Brady, which I love [laughter].
Lisa Richette The lawyer, who's a very dear friend of mine, was sitting in his office one day while he was working on one of those appeals that I talked about, and he got a phone call and an appointment was made. And this absolutely stunning black woman arrived in his office, you know, magnificently dressed and so forth. And she said that she was interested in Matthew Brady. Well, this was so absolutely incongruous to this boy's whole background, he couldn't possibly figure out how this woman had come across Matthew Brady, and she obviously knew him. Well, of course, it turned out that this beautiful woman was a transvestite, a prisoner, who had been in the same prison with Matthew. And Matthew had been the one person to protect this sexual deviant against the assaults and attacks of other inmates in a very impersonal way because this was the kind of boy he was. He just couldn't stand to see anybody pushed around.
Lisa Richette Yes!
Lisa Richette Yes, so his partner who saw this woman walked out and said, "Is that the one who was interested in Matthew Brady?" And my friend said, yes. He said, "What are you telling me, that this boy needs the love of a woman, he's already found it." And the lawyers said, "Not yet, not quite yet."
Studs Terkel By the way on that subject, here too, the horrors of, often the bin, the storage bin. And what happens when a child, the very nature of [unintelligible] of prisoners is the homosexual attacks that are also an aspect.
Lisa Richette Oh, yes. Yes, of course. This is a thing that all children really fear, boys and girls, you know. What's fantastic, Studs, and I didn't write about it at great length because I had to let, you know, let some things stay for another book. But what happens in these little reformatories is that families are set up in which for girls, for example, there's a mother and a father and and their children. And the whole thing is a sexual, lesbian kind of complex and the same thing with the boys.
Studs Terkel There's a case here, there's so many cases in the book by Lisa Richette, "The Throw Away", the very title itself, of course, by now is self-explanatory. Children thrown away by society and or by parents as things and because they're thrown away, and then thrown away buildings, very often, you say, too. They're these--
Lisa Richette Yes.
Studs Terkel And again for children in trouble, and there's a big conflict going on right now. They want to expand it and the idea is rather than preventative, that it's a bin, make it a bigger storage bin.
Studs Terkel By the way, you speak of the respectables in our society. We're just we're just - Lisa Richette and I are just talking, using the book as a base. And I think I'm freely associating now so many aspects of the book hit me--
Lisa Richette Yes. So it was interesting when I was writing about that case - this was a very a very interesting writing project for me. It was kind of a catharsis in many ways. It was very therapeutic, but it was also very hard to keep what I hoped is a note of a real restraint and you know objectivity in this. But when I wrote that the first draft, I read it over and I thought, it's too clean and it's too nice. Something's wrong, I've left something out. And fortunately, I had the photographs. And I took the photographs out and when I saw them I realized how much I had left out. And so I began to understand, for example, why one of my very good, old friends keeps hanging in his room photographs of Dachau because he says that the human mind has an incredible built-in eraser. You know, we just take out all the horror and leave just enough that we can live with.
Lisa Richette And, in that case, these children were on public assistance, not one of them had ever gone to school one day of their lives, they were just simply forgotten by everybody. It's remarkable.
Lisa Richette Nothing, nothing, nothing. And they were living with an alcoholic mother who was really promiscuous. And she just went off on a spree every time she got her DPA check and left these kids starving. And they boiled the baby, accidentally, because they wanted to stop her crying. She was crying from hunger. And the water didn't work properly.
Lisa Richette Yeah, this was in Connecticut. I was living - I was at Yale. I was one of six girls in the law school, and we weren't allowed to live in the beautiful quadrangle with the men. So, we had a horrible old house that I found terribly depressing.
Lisa Richette Right.
Lisa Richette Yes. I understand now that the Yale Law students who are women will be allowed to live in the quad starting this September. The quad is just beautiful, but anyway, I felt very depressed and very isolated. So I wanted to change my place of living and I couldn't afford the apartments in New Haven. So I looked in the paper and there was an ad for a cottage parent, and they gave you housing and they gave you food and meals and so forth. And I just thought I'd go look at the job. Well, when I went and I was shown the cottage that I would be living in and I saw these 13 kids between the ages of six to 11, I just simply fell in love with them. You know, I didn't want to leave, so I took the job and I worked there for three years while I was taking my law, and probably that was as important, that experience, as anything I ever learned in a book. Because every one of those 13 kids had committed one or more of those crimes that we were reading about in our criminal law casebook.
Lisa Richette Yes.
Lisa Richette I think that inside a lot of people feel this way, but sometimes because of their career involvements and so forth, and their own political ambitions, they can't express it. The reason I left the district attorney's office was Vincent, that case. I didn't want to make the book a melodramatic autobiography, so I didn't put that in the book, but it was the district attorney's decision to prosecute this 13 year old boy for first degree murder, for having murdered his parents, having killed his parents--
Studs Terkel Pardon me, I want to come to this in a moment. There's a parenthetical comment to be made now. As you and I are talking, at this moment there appears to be, I say appears to be, a situation in Ann Arbor, Michigan--
Lisa Richette Yes.
Lisa Richette Yes.
Lisa Richette Well, what I felt was that the district attorney, like the Roman Tribune of old, should be the conscience of the community and not its megaphone. My boss did not have this view. He was running for re-election. He was a person who was very concerned about his own career, he had judicial ambitions. In fact, this this year he is a candidate for for a judgeship. And so he made what he thought was the easiest decision, which in the long run has turned out to be the hardest decision for this reason: when the boy was arraigned in adult criminal court, his lawyer, whom I describe in the book, who was one of the great men that I have been privileged to know, decided he could not possibly take a chance with a jury.
Lisa Richette Yes, this is Vincent. His lawyer decided to throw him on the mercy of the court. And so there was a hearing before three judges. And these three judges, after reviewing all of the evidence in this case, which my office and I had painfully assembled, decided that they needed to put him away. But they put him away under a very peculiar sentence. There has never been another sentence like this in the history of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. They sentenced him for life to a mental hospital, they specified that he should never be put in a penal institution.