At what age do we become accountable?

Dianne St. Jean

Last week 19-year old Skylar Prockner was sentenced as an adult for the murder of 16-year-old Hannah Leflar.

Previous to the conviction and sentencing, a ban was in place forbidding the disclosure of Prockner’s name because the crime had been committed while he was a minor. Prockner’s defense was that he suffered from depression and other effects of a troubled childhood when he murdered Leflar, who had broken up with him. The Queen’s Bench judge did not agree and found he acted out of jealousy and anger.

Not long afterwards an announcement was made that Omar Khadr, the Canadian citizen who was detained at Guantanamo Bay for ten years before returning to prison in Canada, would receive an apology plus $10.5 million in compensation for violation of his rights. Although Khadr admitted to throwing a grenade that killed Sgt. Chris Speer and injured another soldier while in Afghanistan, part of the justification for the decision was that Khadr was considered to be a child soldier, being 15 years old at the time.

These are two separate stories, but they have some things in common that signal, in my opinion, a conflict between human rights and morality that our society needs to settle.

The conflict comes in determining whether or not individuals should be held responsible for criminal, illegal or immoral actions based on their age. Part of that argument comes from an assumption that minors are incapable of making sound or moral decisions (i.e. not understanding the consequences) or that any wrong action they do is not really their fault if they have suffered some type of trauma as a child, hence Prockner’s attempt to use this to get off the hook for killing Leflar.

Apart from obvious emotional, physical or sexual abuse, where do you draw the line in terms of using a bad childhood as an excuse for unfitting behaviour? To use the imperfections of others to justify evil or cruelty crosses the line from personal accountability to a refusal to be responsible for our own actions and decisions, which brings me to my next point – free will.

Khadr admitted in court that he, by his own free will, threw the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer. He chose to accept the hate-filled dialogue and beliefs from his family about the West (although they enjoyed, and still do, the privileges of living in Canada) and fight alongside his father in Afghanistan on behalf of Al-Qaeda – a terrorist, murderous group. He was not forced to participate in the fighting as are many children and young people across the globe who are taken by force, made to witness their family members being raped, tortured or murdered, and then threatened with the same if they refuse to fight. And, if he indeed was recruited through either threat, coercion or manipulation as other child soldiers, what are his feelings now? Has anyone required him to make a public declaration re his thoughts on Al-Qaeda, or recant his allegiance to them? After all, he is now an adult with free will. The argument in the news that his beliefs don’t matter is pure bull, because motive is an integral part of both moral and legal decisions.

In Royal Canadian Legions across this country we honour veterans, some who were in their teens themselves (some lied about their age) when they dedicated their service to our country. Do we consider them to be “child soldiers” because they were younger than the legal age at the time?

While one’s upbringing does have an effect on an individual, ultimately the decision to be accountable for one’s own actions rests on the shoulders of the individual as an adult, and they should own up to it.