I cried when I read my report to the court on the sentencing of 15 year old Diego Melendez. I had actually advocated for a 30 year sentence for this child. Why? Because the judge determined the sentencing range was between 30-40 years. Thirty years was the least he could hand out to this angel-faced kid waived to adult court.
Talking with Diego afterwards he clearly did not grasp what 30 or more years would mean. Thirty years is two life times for him. He asked me if the court might reconsider his sentence in 10 years or so? It broke my heart but I told him while it was possible, the current law and climate made it unlikely. It does no good to lie to someone going to prison. They need a firm grasp on reality to survive.
I’ve been studying dehumanizing language but maybe I haven’t been thinking broad enough. Donald Trump recently called the Central American gang MS 13 “animals” and has pledged to eradicate them. In my courtroom cases gang members have been called “rats.” “snakes,” “beasts,” and wild animals of all sorts. Diego was called “cold blooded” like a reptile. One of the main points David Livingstone Smith makes in his Less Than Human is that dehumanization offers “a method for counteracting inhibitions against lethal violence by excluding our victims from the human community.”
|The US incarceration Rate is off the charts|
Maybe dehumanization is a good way to describe our sentencing policy. How can judges rationalize sentences of 30, 40, or even life in prison? They say “let the punishment fit the crime” but the US is an outlier in our use of incarceration and the length of our sentences. For example. in Norway, the longest sentence someone can get is 21 years, for any crime. In our country, one way to rationalize locking gang members up and “throwing away the key” is to consider them “animals.” We rationalize the violence of incarceration by dehumanizing gang members and other dark skinned offenders.
Let me tell you about Diego Melendez and how he came to be caged for 30 years.
Diego was what we call “socialized to the streets.” His parents had been Latin King and MS 13 members. He started hanging out with gang members at age 8 and was jumped into the Maniac Latin Disciples (MLD) at 10 or 11. I told an incredulous judge that for Diego the gang was normal. The judge was engaged with my testimony and asked me numerous questions about why such young boys join gangs? The Assistant States Attorney tried to cut me off several times, but the judge reprimanded him and told him to not “cut off a witness again.” This white suburban judge was struggling to understand how a young kid like Diego could be in a gang and kill. This kind of judicial questioning is what you want to see as an expert witness.
The homicide, like all murders was heart-rending. Diego’s MLD leader told him and another child soldier that the Latin Kings were invading and gave them guns. Diego saw two guys running 30 or 40 yards away. He told me he thought he fired into the ground. Most likely he and his comrade fired in the general direction and as fate had it one of their unlucky shots hit home and killed Jonathon Quebrado.
The States Attorney made a big deal about how after the shooting, Diego laughed. That proved to him Diego was cold blooded and a long prison term was needed to protect society from such a heartless killer. I’ve seen this response many times after a shooting. It is part of the process of dehumanization. The prohibition of killing is so strong that when you actually kill someone, you need a response that counteracts the searing emotional pain of having violated the internalized moral code: “thou shalt not kill.” Laughing, scoffing, flashing your gang sign, or even shouting in triumph are not indications of inhumanity, but psychologically are the opposite. Professional hit men do not celebrate a shooting, they go about their business. Diego was not a hit man, he was a child with a gun.
When Diego learned the young man who been killed was not a Latin King, but an innocent bystander, he was disconsolate. He cooperated with the prosecution which will not be helpful for him in the Illinois prison system. He talked to me about his interests and life in a suburban jail. My written statement to the court tried to bring the boy in Diego to life.
But did you know Diego Melendez loves to read? When I asked him if I could send him a book, he lighted up and said “Eclipse,” by Stephanie Meyer. Looking over my shoulder he said Meyer, with an "e" not "a" This isn’t my idea of a great read but Meyer’s books are intensely popular among teenagers of every race and class. As he described the plots of various books he liked, I thought sadly, “he’s just a kid.” That “kid” is there alongside of the gangster, competing for his life.
I stayed on for the sentencing which immediately followed my testimony. I think the judge was moved by Diego’s youth but felt constrained by the law. After he handed down a 33 1/2 year sentence I was taken aback by the Public Defender’s congratulation. “The betting pool among PDs” he said, “was 38 or 39 years. Your testimony saved him five or six years.”
These small victories may be all we can get in today’s cruel world of lengthy sentences. But they speak to the limits of the kind of work I do or the often futile efforts of Public Defenders and defense attorneys. If I do my job well, I can humanize a gang member, like Diego Melendez. But I can’t humanize a system of mass incarceration that throws away lives since they aren’t really considered to be human anyway.
Diego’s mother had a tear drop tattoo and had been told by attorneys to get rid of it or not show up in court since it would cue “gang involvement” to the judge. As I left, I told her to make sure to keep that tattoo and look at it everyday in the mirror and think of Diego. How can we not cry over a system that is drenched in the pain of dehumanization?
Berreby, David. 2005. Us and Them: The Science of Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Fine, Gary Alan. 1987. With the boys : Little League baseball and preadolescent culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Smith, David Livingstone. 2011. Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others: Amazon Kindle.