Stacey Kay was getting ready for bed at around 10 p.m. on Oct. 29, 1997, when she heard a loud knock at the front door of her home in Pontiac, Mich., and saw her 11-year-old neighbor Nathaniel Abraham standing alone on her porch. Opening the door, she found him whimpering, his eyes wide. “Oh, my God, something terrible has happened!” he told her. Down the street, police lights were flashing. A short time later, Kay’s roommate took Abraham next door to his home, where his mother, who worked a night job, had apparently left him alone. “He was scared, like a little baby,” says Kay.
Two days later, as Abraham was celebrating Halloween in his sixth-grade classroom at Lincoln Elementary School, a police officer arrived to take him in for questioning. Authorities were investigating the death of 18-year-old Ronnie Greene Jr., a carpenter who had been killed by a single bullet to the head as he emerged from a convenience store ” near Abraham’s home on the night of Oct. 29. Under questioning, Abraham admitted he had fired a 22-cal. rifle but insisted that he’d only been shooting at trees.
Unpersuaded, prosecutors not only charged the 11-year-old with first-degree murder but decided to try him as an adult, invoking the 1997 Michigan law that gives prosecutors the right to transfer any child’s case into adult court if the charges involve certain serious crimes. Consequently, Abraham, now 13 and one of the youngest people ever tried as an adult for murder in the U.S. since the 18th century, has become the focal point of a national debate over how to handle dangerous young offenders.
Of course, Robin Adams, Ronnie Greene’s mother, who lost the second of her three children in the shooting, sees the case in less abstract terms. Adams, 45, a greeter at a nearby Meijer Store, says Ronnie, a high school dropout, had begun to find his niche, laying floors and installing cabinets, while still “the type of guy who liked to have fun.” Says Adams: “Some people take life so seriously. Ronnie didn’t.” For her, the shock of his death was redoubled when she learned the age of his accused killer. “I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock again,” she says. “When I saw him and realized he was just a young child, I thought, ‘What is he doing with a gun? At that age?’ ”
According to prosecutors, appearances are deceiving, and Abraham, though never before convicted of a crime, is, they say, a hardened street criminal. They allege that before his arrest for murder, Abraham had had 22 “contacts” with the police in connection with a long list of offenses, including arson, assaults—in one incident with a metal pipe—and break-ins. (He was arrested only once, for burglarizing a garage, but was never formally charged.) As evidence of his intent to kill, they allege that several hours before the Greene killing, Abraham shot at a neighbor and barely missed—a charge on which he is also being tried. At Abraham’s trial, a 16-year-old boy who had been with Abraham earlier on the night of the killing testified that the next day, Abraham boasted to him, “I got that nigga.”
Abraham’s attorney Geoffrey Fieger—best known previously for representing Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the assisted-suicide advocate—contends his young client is far from a cold-blooded killer. He notes that Abraham was standing nearly 300 ft. away from Greene and that the rifle he fired was a crude weapon lacking a shoulder stock and incapable of effective aim. Backed up by expert testimony from psychologists, Fieger also argued that Abraham, who has been tested as having a low IQ, lacked the mental capacity to form any intent to shoot someone. “It’s an accident,” says Fieger. “It was a child, playing with other children, shooting at trees, lights, stop signs. It’s that simple, that innocent and that tragic.”
Fieger and Abraham’s mother, Gloria, 37, a night-shift lab technician who acknowledges she was not always able to keep track of her son, see hypocrisy in the prosecution’s determination to charge the boy with first-degree murder. Gloria concedes Abraham sometimes got into scrapes with other kids around the neighborhood, but she says that whenever she tried to get help or further counseling for her learning-disabled son, the bureaucracy gave her the runaround. In an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes, Oakland County Prosecuting Attorney David Gorcyca conceded that the state of Michigan “owes Nate’s mother an apology” for letting her son fall through the cracks of the social system—an admission she views with contempt. “Owe me an apology! ” Abraham exclaims angrily. “To say the system failed but still they want to try my child as an adult? This is ridiculous.”
For the past two years, while his case has gone through a series of pretrial motions and appeals, Abraham has been held at Children’s Village, a county detention center for juveniles, where his mother visits each Sunday. “Nate’s hoping something positive will come out of this,” says Gloria. “He wants to come home.” As of Nov. 9, both the defense and the prosecution had rested, and the case was expected to go to the jury at any time. If convicted, Abraham could face life without parole, though Judge Eugene A. Moore has the discretion to sentence him to a lesser term as a juvenile, or to defer a decision on prison time until later, first when Abraham turns 19 and then 21—at either of which points he could be sentenced as an adult or released, depending on his progress.
For her part, Robin Adams seems to favor showing her son’s killer some mercy in the hope that he can turn his life around. “He needs rehabilitation,” she says. “He needs somebody in his life to reach out and help him.” Yet prosecutor Gorcyca, who favors the option of waiting until Abraham turns 21 before final sentencing, argues that the boy is a danger to society and that trying him as an adult gives the state leverage to ensure that he mends his ways for good. “Getting him off would be a travesty,” says Gorcyca. “As a prosecutor, my first and foremost job is to protect the public.”
Champ Clark and Amy Mindell in Pontiac