ALAN v25n3 - Capital Punishment for Juveniles: Albert French's Billy

Capital Punishment for Juveniles:
Albert French's Billy

Sonja Darlington

According to Victor Streib, Dean and Professor of Law at The Claude W. Pettit College of Law at Ohio Northern University, too few Americans are aware that about 350 children under the age of eighteen have been executed in the United States since the colonial days (1997, p. 8). At the time of the offense, the youngest of these children executed in America was ten. At the time of execution, at least 34 of these children were 15 or younger. From 1642 to 1964, about two-thirds of all children executed were black. Only eight of these children were female, and all eight females were black or Indian. The South was responsible for 62 percent of the executions during this time ( Streib, 1987 , p. 60). Texas, followed by Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, has had the most juvenile offenders (43%) on death row in the nation since 1973. Moreover, despite international norms, the United States is the leader in the practice ( Streib, 1997 , p. 2). Equally as troubling are the implications that can be drawn from the fact that, in capital punishment cases involving adults, Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet have found that 350 persons have probably been wrongly convicted in the United States between 1900 and 1987 of potential capital crimes and twenty-three percent were executed unjustly ( 1987 ).

Given these statistics and the current fever to execute more frequently - an increase of 165 percent in the past decade ( Streib, 1997 , p. 7), capital punishment appears to be an issue that adolescents should be encouraged to read about and consider carefully. The death penalty debate is a "hot" topic that the Congressional Quarterly Researcher (March 10, 1995) highlighted in a rich discussion of issues, current trends, global comparisons, media coverage, and a list of sources. For teachers, such powerful resources can provide their students with the background they need to examine the historical circumstances and legal jurisdictions that, rightly or wrongly, explain the execution of juveniles for capital crimes in the United States. As a topic for classroom discussion, capital punishment is far from relevant only in history and government. Emphatically, the issue of capital punishment is one which English teachers can tackle by introducing students to Albert French's 1994 novel, Billy. As a piece of fiction focused on intense societal conflict, French's book raises issues of class structure, juvenile justice, and racism. Clearly, this is a book Herbert Kohl would find as worthy as the young adult literature that he remembers helping him question the world as a child in the 40s and as a beginning teacher in the 60s ( Should We Burn Babar? pp. 59-6 3).

Before proceeding to a fuller discussion about specific themes and issues that teachers can discover in Billy, recent criticisms of the book deserve a brief airing. A compelling argument made by some reviewers is that Billy is an American tragedy in the classical sense. A New Times Book Review writer noted, it is a tragedy wherein the worst imaginings of American life are revealed (p. 7). The story is a chilling tale about a ten year-old black male who inadvertently stabs a young fourteen year-old White girl over his right to use her watering hole and is then executed for first-degree murder. French's story, based loosely on an eleven year-old black boy sent to the electric chair, can be found documented by Streib (1983, pp. 619-20) . And although French's powerful social critique may have taken America by storm (The Observer, p. 18), a quarrel has arisen in some quarters with regard to his high-voltage drama. Amidst the high praise, a few critics have accused French of writing a melodrama that "sounds as if it has been written in 1937" ( New York Magazine, p. 90 ). However, as I will argue in this discussion, these critics are remiss by not encouraging French to educate the public, particularly adolescents, on the history of social issues as morally potent as class, capital punishment for juveniles, and race.

Of the three issues in American society that are the focus of French's attention in Billy, juvenile justice issues have been substantially documented in recent American law reviews. Two particularly insightful articles on executing juveniles for capital crimes appeared in 1996. The most recent article by Katherine Federle argues against transferring children to adult criminal court for capital cases in the Wisconsin Law Review (pp. 447-494) . Her point is that "judicial waiver provisions link law and violence in a way that is often hidden and unacknowledged" (p. 494). Another study in the New England Journal on Criminal and Civil Confinement by Sherri Jackson suggests alternatives to executing children by citing youth empowerment initiatives that can help rehabilitate juvenile offenders (pp. 391-437). As she argues, "The fundamental premise of the juvenile justice system is to treat and rehabilitate a juvenile offender, not to punish him..."(p. 436). In addition, readers should look at an article by Victor Streib (1997) in Loyola's University's Poverty Law Journal on the current status of juveniles who are on death row.

Beyond issues raised by French regarding capital punishment for juveniles, worthwhile supporting materials on a broader level include an article by Edmund McGarrell and Marla Sandys on the misperception of public opinion towards capital punishment in the American Behavioral Scientist (pp. 500-513). Another resource is an article by Mark Costanzo and Lawrence White entitled "An Overview of the Death Penalty and Capital Trials: History, Current Status, Legal Procedures and Cost" (Journal of Social Issues, pp. 1-18). A significant point they make is that there is no support for the claim that the death penalty is cost effective. In the same issue, Phoebe Ellsworth and Samuel Gross write about the hardening of attitudes by Americans towards the death penalty. These articles, along with others mentioned throughout this discussion, provide a background for teachers who recognize the need for adolescents to read and discuss French's Billy. Although French's story is set in 1937, his critique, which describes the class structure in America, the rights of American citizens under the age of eighteen, and the racist environment in America that punishes blacks more severely than whites, is as relevant today as it was in the 1930s, a decade known as the peak of executions in America (Worsnop, p. 201) .

Influence of Social Class

To begin, American class structure can be explored through three symbols that French develops throughout the book: the Patch, the Cinderella myth, and locomotives. The Patch is a place near Catfish Creek bridge in Banes County, Mississippi, where most blacks live. The houses are shacks; the roads are muddy; the land is bare, dusty ground. The townfolk of Patch include the town gossip, Shorty; the Bible-thumping Reverend Sims; the tough-handed liquor dealer, LeRoy; the ten year-old son, Billy; his vagrant father, Otis; his 26-year-old darkly handsome mother, Cinder; and Cinder's motherly aunt, Katey. French is adept at describing the daily activities of the Patch that have a style and order of its own. For example, on a Saturday night, the old folks "set back, might be rockin in a swayin chair..."; the less older folks "get that sittin porch hollerin done..."; and the young patch folk are "runnin back and forth up and down them Patch paths, tryin to catch each other or a firefly" (p. 80). As a poor community, the Patch is besieged with the usual troubles associated with low socio-economic classes: illegitimacy, child and wife abuse, drinking, and violence. In contrast to the Patch, the white community has power over the Patch folks, simply because of their color. They exercise their authority through the roles of the town sheriff, the newspaper editor, the local doctor, and the minister. French's murder plot is mired in the rich details that describe the differences between those who run Banes County and those who work and live in the Patch.

At the center of the story, Billy's mother, Cinder, represents the struggle between classes. Drawn by French as someone who "walked gracefully, could walk like somethin she ain't never seen, walked like she was a ballet princess…," (p. 5). Cinder is the antithesis of Cinderella in the well-know Grimm fairy tale. She is the child of an interracial relationship, illegitimate, and raised without either of her parents. At 16, she becomes pregnant with Billy, is deserted by her smooth-talking boyfriend, and begins to drink too much after she loses hope that her lover will return and take her to a better place - which he says is Chicago. Cinder is a female who, rather than becoming rich and living happily in the upper class, becomes even more destitute when she cannot protect and defend her son from the retribution sought by the powerful majority. As French tells it, in the end, "Cinder was no longer Cinder, only a soul seeking death, dying, then being yanked alive by white hands in the night snatching her baby" (p. 144). Obviously, her story represents a fairy tale gone awry. Yet, told persuasively by French, whose description of the lowest class as lived by the Patch folk in Banes County, Mississippi, in the summer of 1937, has a remarkable likeness to the reality of the lowest class as lived by inner-city children in America in 1997. The Cinderella metaphor, a means to draw readers' attention to the attitudes towards these children in American society, parallels the stories told in national reports such as Losing Generations: Adolescents in High Risk Settings by the National Research Council (1993) and Poverty, Inequality, and the Future of Social Policy (1995) by Katherine McFate, Roger Lawson, and William Julius Wilson .

In sharp comparison to the lower class symbols that the Patch and Cinder represent, upper class privilege and success are represented by the ubiquitous trains passing through Banes. These trains are fast; they appear to be invincible; and they go everywhere. White faces look out their windows and see swampland - like the Patch - but they pass by "seeing only a quick blur"(p. 14). The disparity between the seemingly unlimited potential of those who can afford to ride trains and the very narrowly circumscribed distances that Patch folk are able to travel, highlights the unequal access to rights and privileges enjoyed by the more affluent class. Cinder, and her son, Billy, are like so many other folk in the Patch who are psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually affected by their environment. Small wonder, that someone like Billy occasionally wants to cross a forbidden boundary, from the Patch to Pasko land and pondwater, and does not understand that social class in America is defined in terms of physical space. His childhood limited by the inability to overcome his class, his race, and his environment, Billy grows vulnerable to violent impulsive actions. As Jackson notes, many studies provide supportive evidence for the direct correlation between physical abuse and neglect and subsequent violent juvenile crime (p. 423). For example, during 1986 and 1987, a study on fourteen juveniles on death row in Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Texas found that all fourteen juveniles were brain damaged or suffered from psychiatric illnesses (p. 413). Billy's cognitive and emotional profile indicate he could have been one of these statistics.

Legal Implications

Following the examination of social class, which serves as a key to understanding the setting and circumstances for Billy's execution, the most important issue of the story is whether ten year-old Billy should have been sentenced to death. In order to help readers answer this fundamental question, French provides background on the psychology of the people, the social structure of the community, the religious beliefs of the clergy and its constituency, and the legal system for juveniles. The critical events that demand attention are Billy's conviction, jailing, and execution, and the reader suspects immediately that Billy's rights are being violated. As the story of his crime unravels, both he and his friend Gumpy are questioned without legal counsel. Unaware of the law, Gumpy betrays Billy as soon as Sheriff Tom presses him to answer how Lori got stabbed. During Billy's questioning, as soon as Sheriff Tom has the confession, he bangs his fist on the desk and proclaims Billy guilty of murder. Before Judge Harper rules that Billy will be tried as an adult, he barks at the defense attorney that Mississippi will attend to its own affairs, regardless of the scorn it may receive for sending a ten-year-old black boy to death. His harsh verdict to transfer Billy to adult court is the same topic Federle addresses in her 1996 Wisconsin Law Review article. Her argument is clearly against "the reliance on judicial transfer provisions as a response to serious juvenile crime and the concomitant lowering of the age at which the court may certify a minor to stand trial as an adult" (p. 448).

A critique against sentencing Billy in criminal court as an adult is timely. As Federle points out, the U.S. Supreme Court has reduced the rights of children by allowing individual courts to transfer their capital offenses to criminal court when the child's crime appears too heinous for the juvenile justice system to handle. In addition, the Supreme Court has treated ambiguously the question of whether minors are mature enough to accept ultimate responsibility for their crimes. Currently, the perceived maturity level of a child depends on circumstances that are infinitely manipulable by the adults connected with each capital offense. In the case of Billy, French provides irrefutable reasons for criticizing both the ability of the juvenile system to meet the challenge of adjudicating childhood crimes fairly and the wisdom of adults to decide that a particular child is mature and another is not.

Throughout the text, French maintains that Billy is a child. He scrupulously records Billy's reactions to the events around him. In the first chapter, the reader learns that Billy is really fearless. In vivid contrast to Gumpy, Billy's best friend, Billy is not scared of crossing the railroad tracks, even when they represent crossing to the "other" side - black to white -or crossing a trestle without room for both an oncoming train and him. His fearlessness suggests that he is too young to realize the potential of his actions. Readers are even more clearly alerted to Billy's child-like nature in Chapter Seven when Billy is jailed, and he cries the whole night in his cell for his "mama" and wants to go home (p. 110). Furthermore, while he is in his cell, Billy suggests to his pal, Gumpy, that they sneak out the window. Until Gumpy alerts him to the bars on the window, Billy does not even realize the physical characteristics of the jail. Perhaps most incriminating for the adults who charge Billy with murder is the fact that, when he goes to trial, Billy does not know what a trial means. "What's a trial, Billy? Tell the people what a trial is" states the public defender. "Ah, don't know," says Billy (p. 171). Given that Billy is so utterly unaware of his circumstances, many readers will find that this ten-year-old child should not be executed for murder - particularly because they also know that Billy pulled his knife only after he had been provoked by Lori. Readers may well agree with French that Billy is a child and should be treated like one.

Effects of Racism

Finally, another significant issue French examines is racism. At the start of the story, most whites refer to Billy and the other people from the Patch as "Niggers." The degradation of blacks is total: from LeRoy, who refers to Shorty as "this little old boy with that grin" (p. 53), to Deputy Hill who treats the "Damn niggers," Billy and Gumpy, with brutality (pp. 134-5), to the posse who hunts them like animals, to those who burn the houses of innocent neighbors in the Patch, to the crowd who wants to hang the "little black bastards" (p. 136), to the judge who wants Mississippi law and order to prevail, to the juror who says "a knife in the hand of that vicious Nigra boy slashed the life away from Lori" and seeks revenge (p. 167). Billy does not have a chance because he is black. As French suggests through his repeated description of menacing dogs, blacks are prey to be hunted by whites (p. 87). Blacks, like dogs, are animals. They both exist to kill and be killed. The full measure of these deeply troubling racist attitudes is collected and documented by the editor of the town paper, Harvey Jakes.

The sting of French's critique of American racism is particularly effective as he describes the role of the media in Billy's execution and can be seen as an allegory for what is happening today, e.g., Bush's Willie Horton campaign. From the start the editor, Harvey Jakes, is more interested in a news story than in justice. Along with his assistant, Helen Marks, he seems to smile only when he is able to get a good story that folks in Banes Country will read, like the piece under the headline, "KILLER BOY TO DIE" (p. 201). With his Speed Graphic camera ready to shoot pictures, he just wants "to take a peek at them, see what they look like" (p. 121). Harvey and Helen attend events which French likens to a circus: first, when they are part of the crowd that spits, stones, and swears at Billy and Gumpy, who are on their way to prison; a second time, when Billy and Gumpy go to court for trial; and a third time, when they attend Billy's execution. Both Harvey and Helen are thrilled to be part of the execution and believe like Mister Hanner that "folks got a right to see" and executions ought to be public again (p. 199).

Similarities to the circus atmosphere created by sensationalized capital crimes committed today are obvious. As in 1937, the death penalty remains an eye-catching arena for politicians, and the media has done little to curtail the public's insatiable curiosity for extravagantly-staged dramas. Regrettably, these stories have as little to do with America's understanding of itself as a civilized society today as in the days of the 30s when America was younger and arguably not as mature nor responsible. The cases of Dahmer, Gacy, and Bundy make the point. As Ellsworth and Gross remind readers, "Public attitudes are not shaped by events themselves, but by public perception of those events (p. 42). A society which has not improved on its record in this regard is certainly one that adolescents should question.

Students ought to know that fifty countries, including most of Western Europe, have abolished the death penalty or have limitations, such as applying it only to treason. None of these countries execute children (Villanova Law Review, p. 666) . Furthermore, the norms of international law include three international treaties that prohibit the death penalty for juveniles. The three treaties include Article 6(5) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 4(5) of the American Convention on Human Rights, and Article 68 of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (VLR, p. 666) . As Tanya Perfecky points out, "The norm against the execution of juveniles is presently binding on the United States only at time of war" (VLR, p. 667) . "Ironically," she states "with notable exceptions such as Rwanda, Barbados, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the United States now stands almost alone in its tolerance of capital punishment for sixteen-year-old juveniles" (VLR, p. 673) . Unfortunately, too few adolescents have heard, much less considered, these statistics.

In conclusion, French's story, Billy, suggests to adolescents that they have important issues to consider. First, like the 287 juveniles executed in the U.S. from 1642 to 1964, if they commit a capital crime, they are not too young to be executed. Today even though by statute adolescents do not have the right to vote, to drink, to get married, to enlist in the armed services, or to participate on a jury ( Jackson, p. 405) , they can be executed. As the police deputy Wesley Hall joked, when he was told that Billy was either ten or twelve at the most, "Shit that ain't too young for them ta takes a nigger, theys takes a nigger any size" (Billy, p. 85) . Second, folks in Banes County, like many today, did not care whether issues of retribution or deterrence were considered seriously and even-handedly. The victim's brother, David Pasco, sought retribution and that immediately defined the communities' orientation towards the crime. As he said, "My sister's dead, and that nigger goin to pay for it" (p. 35). His reaction, as well as, the reaction of those in power, was emotional and resolute. Unfortunately, this reaction justified for them Billy's one-day trial and subsequent execution.

Indeed, adolescents have more to fear today than in 1937 because, as Ellsworth and Gross note, support for the death penalty is higher than ever. In their 1994 study, they refer to data which demonstrates that Americans "tended to endorse all reasons [for the death penalty] that were consistent with their basic position" (p. 26). And, even though the literature has documented for twenty years that people care about death penalty convictions, the literature also documents that people continue to feel that they do not need to be better informed about it (p. 40). My personal experience as a teacher educator attests to these same results. Recently, a student teacher of mine questioned 15 students in her class, and the majority of students supported the death penalty even when it involved a child. Their argument, like David's, was one of retribution: "If someone kills my child, I will kill his/her child." A conclusion that may be drawn from this informal survey is that adolescents should be given opportunities to examine social issues critically and encouraged to debate them seriously.

The benefit of reading Billy is that teachers can use it to help students to question the nature of human interactions, the meaning of human existence, and the value of human life. Unlike newspaper and television stories that discourage these sorts of reflective activities, reading Billy can provide the chance for students to make comparisons to their own life experiences. French asks readers to consider the kind of social justice that adults in Banes County, Mississippi, envisioned in 1937 that would sanction the execution of a ten-year-old. As importantly, he also asks readers to focus on the social justice envisioned in America in the 1990s. Is America, domestically and internationally, a human rights-oriented community? Have Americans really become more humane in the past 60 years? Or do Americans seem to be in accord with the folks in Banes County who find that a child - even at ten - should be executed for a capital crime? These are some of the questions that adolescents can be taught through a text as noteworthy as French's Billy. Gwendolyn Brooks concurs in "The Children of the Poor" with French's call for justice and warns that some people "attain a mail of ice and insolence/ Need not pause in the fire, and in no sense/ Hesitate in the hurricane to guard" (p. 1586). In vivid contrast, Brooks praises those individuals who are able to remain open to the plight of a child and recognize that "his lesions are legion. But reaching is his rule" (p. 1588).


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Brooks, Gwendolyn. "The Children of the Poor." In Henry Louis Gates and Nellie McKay. Gen. Eds. African American Literature. W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Costanzo, Mark, and Lawrence White. "An Overview of the Death Penalty and Capital Trials: History, Current Status, Legal Procedures, and Cost." Journal of Social Issues, 1994, 50:2, pp. 1-18.

Dorris, Michael. "No Place for a Black Boy to Swim." New York Times Book Review. (December, 19, 1993) p. 7.

Ellsworth, Phoebe, and Samuel Gross. "Hardening of the Attitudes: Americans' Views on the Death Penalty." Journal of Social Issues, 1994. 50:2, pp. 19-52.

Federle, Katherine. "Emancipation and Execution: Transferring Children to Criminal Court in Capital Cases." Wisconsin Law Review, 1996. no. 3, pp. 447-494.

French, Albert. Billy. Penguin Books, 1993.

Gerrard, Nicci. "Flowing Fast and True for Vietnam." The Observer. (February 6, 1994) p. 18.

Jackson, Sherri. "Too Young to Die - Junveniles and the Death Penalty - A Better Alternative to Killing Our Children: Youth Empowerment." New England Journal on Criminal and Civil Confinement, 1996. 22:2, pp. 391-437.

Kohl, Herbert. Should We Burn Babar? The New Press, 1995.

McFate, Katherine, Roger Lawson, and William Julius Wilson. Poverty, Inequality, and the Future of Social Policy. Russell Sage Foundation, 1995.

McGarrell, Edmund, and Marla Sandys. "The Misperception of Public Opinion Toward Capital Punishment." American Behavioral Scientist, 1996, 39:4, pp. 500-513.

National Research Council. Losing Generations: Adolescents in High Risk Settings. Washington D.C. National Academy Press, 1993.

Perfecky, Tanya. "Children, The Death Penalty and the Eighth Amendment: An Analysis of Stanford v. Kentucky." Villanova Law Review, 1990, 35:3-4, pp. 641-673.

Streib, Victor. "Death Penalty for Children: The American Experience with Capital Punishment for Crimes Committed While Under Age Eighteen." Oklahoma Law Review, 1983, vo. 36, pp. 613-641.

______. Death Penalty for Juveniles. Indiana University Press, 1987.

______. "The Juvenile Death Penalty in the United States and Worldwide." Poverty Law Journal. Loyola University Press, 1997.

Worsnop, Richard. "The Death Penalty Debate." Congressional Quarterly Researcher, 1995, 5:9, pp. 195-215.

Sonja Darlington is Director of Secondary Education at Beliot College in Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in such journals as The ALAN Review, Middle School Journal, and Journal of Curriculum Theorizing.