Jailing "scum' agonizing when scum is a child
Stressful work

Monday, September 7, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hamilton County prosecutors are trained to put bad people in jail. But lately, like their colleagues around the country, they find themselves facing children whose young faces don't seem to match the horrible crimes they've been accused of committing.

And the contrast, the unexpected shift from hardened felons to kids, creates a terrible strain, especially for prosecutors who are also parents.

The crimes involved make everyone gasp. Innocent little children murdered or raped by kids their own age.

In Chicago, two neighborhood pals, ages 7 and 8, were charged with molesting and murdering 11-year-old Ryan Harris in July, just to get hold of her shiny blue bicycle. Although the boys confessed to the crimes, the charges were dropped Friday.

In Cincinnati, two girls said they were victims of sex crimes last month.

On Aug. 12, four Westwood boys, ages 8-10, allegedly took a 7-year-old girl into a wooded area and sexually assaulted her.

On Friday, three of the Westwood boys denied the charges in court. Their trials -- and that of the fourth boy -- are set for October.

And, police are still investigating reports that on Aug. 24, five boys, ages 10-12, forced a 5-year-old Fay Apartments girl to engage in oral sex.

In each case, a prosecutor must do his or her duty, must collect the evidence and build the case for a conviction. The law demands it. The victims' ordeals demand it. Justice demands it. And no one is talking about going easy in such terrible cases.

They try to stay professional and detached. But it's difficult.

"The toll these cases take is tremendous," said Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters. "They hurt you."

Stressful work

Prosecutors try not to let cases of kids and sex crimes get to them. But that's easier said than done.

"The burn-out rate is unreal," said Jim Butler, an assistant Hamilton County prosecutor for the last 18 years. "Most prosecutors can only do these cases for two years. Then they want out."

When trying such cases, prosecutors have trouble leaving their work at the office. Jim Butler can't sleep. "You wake up in the middle of the night and replay the case." He can't eat. "You just forget. You have no appetite."

Whether the child is the victim or the suspect in a case, Jim Butler likens the stress in the courtroom to the horrors of war.

"I served two tours in Vietnam," said the father of two. The stress of a battle or a trial "leaves you feeling completely drained. Your feet are too heavy to lift. Your arms and legs don't feel like they're connected to your body. You can't move."

Hope at home

Joe Deters once said a murderer was "scum." And, it wouldn't have broken his heart if he hurt the killer's feelings. He was talking about an adult.

Now, the prosecutor and his staff are dealing with people who come up only to their waists. Their feet don't touch the ground when they sit in courtroom chairs.

Joe Deters can look at them and think about his own kids.

"I have boys who are 8 and 9 and a girl who is 4," he said. "This is a very volatile time for them. They are finding out they are separate human beings. They are responsible for their actions. And, they can really hurt people.

"My kids have support at home from their parents. I can't imagine what it's like for kids who commit crimes. These kids have no support at all at home."

When the prosecutor goes home at night, he turns into a guy named Dad. He hopes to be greeted by kids who have spent the day just being kids. He wants to forget about what he has seen and heard. He wants to erase the memories of children attacking one another.

Joe Deters knows his kids feel the stress he has been under. When he walks in the door and gives them an extra kiss or a longer hug, they don't try to squirm away. They just hold him tighter.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.