Killer daughter case ignites US debate

Esmie Tseng gave her mother an anklet she made on 9 August last year, the day she wrote her last online diary entry.

“It made me feel so childish, but I suppose that’s really what all parents want,” the 16-year-old honour student from Overland Park, Kansas, wrote.

“I’ve been trying… to make them smile, make them feel better, take Esmie off their list of worries and concerns.”

Ten days later, she stabbed her mother to death with a knife in an incident that apparently took the mother and daughter through several rooms of their home.

The killing stunned the comfortable middle-class, Middle American community where the Tseng family lived.

Esmie was ranked among the best classical pianists of her age in the state. She got top marks in school. She competed in athletic meetings and was on the debating team.

She was – in the words of local father Jacob Horwitz – “a kid any parent would be proud of”.

Impossible standards

Mr Horwitz first heard of her the night she was arrested, 19 August 2005, he says.

His son and daughter had attended summer camp with her, he learned, after seeing on the evening news that she had been detained in connection with the death of her mother, Shu Yi Zhang, 55.

“They couldn’t believe it was the same person they had met: a great kid, easy to get along with, very sweet. My kids don’t hang around people who are generally in trouble,” he told the BBC News website.

Mr Horwitz went online to learn more, and found the weblog Esmie had been keeping for three years.

“I spent the next three or four hours reading her site. From the moment I finished reading, I felt there was much more than you saw on the news.”

Esmie had for years been wrestling with her feelings for her parents, Chinese immigrants who, she said, held her to impossibly high standards.

They had threatened to sell her piano if she did not win a state-wide competition, she wrote.

She said they had grounded her for scoring only 96% in an exam.

And, when she disappointed them, she said they had forced her to stand naked in a corner.

Like many teenagers with diaries, she had written of her hatred for them, especially her mother.

“My God,” Jacob Horwitz remembers thinking when he read her weblog, “it’s a shame that another parent didn’t see this yesterday. It’s a cry for help.”

Treated as adult

He was stunned when Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison pushed successfully for Esmie to be tried as an adult rather than a juvenile.

“Our society recognises that children are developmentally different. They are kids and that’s why we have a juvenile justice system in place,” he says.

Esmie pleaded guilty in an adult court to voluntary manslaughter on 6 March 2006, a month and a day before her 17th birthday.

Prosecution and defence have agreed to recommend a sentence of 100 months – just under eight-and-a-half years – at her sentencing trial on Wednesday. The judge is not required to accept the recommendation.

Esmie is likely to be sent to the Topeka Correctional Facility for Women to serve her sentence, the Kansas City Star reported, after research found she was not eligible to be placed in a juvenile detention centre because she was over 15 at the time she committed her crime.

Mr Horwitz says that would make her the youngest prisoner there, and he has fears for her safety.

Violent offender

District Attorney Paul Morrison says he does not.

“Given her capacity to be violent… one could certainly argue that she is the one to be feared,” he told the BBC.

And he says it is appropriate that she serve in a prison designed for adults.

“Hacking somebody to death with a butcher knife is about as serious as it gets. Even though everybody agrees she had been cruelly treated by her mother, it does not remotely excuse the level of violence.”

He pressed for the teen to be tried as an adult in order to guarantee she spent “significant” time in prison, he says.

“In juvenile [court], there was no guarantee she wouldn’t be released in six months. With the adult system, it’s different. She has to do 85% of what she is sentenced to.”

He says “a lot of time and thought” went into agreeing an appropriate sentence.

Increasing incarceration

America vs. Human Rights

“The United States has long regarded itself as a beacon of human rights, as evidenced by an enlightened constitution, judicial independence, and a civil society grounded in strong traditions of free speech and press freedom. But the reality is more complex; for decades, civil rights and civil liberties groups have exposed constitutional violations and challenged abusive policies and practices. In recent years, as well, international human rights monitors have documented serious gaps in U.S. protections of the human rights of vulnerable groups. Both federal and state governments have nonetheless resisted applying to the U.S. the standards that, rightly, the U.S. applies elsewhere.”
Human Rights Watch

But human rights campaigners say it is inappropriate that the case was ever moved to the adult court system in the first place.

“Juveniles who commit crimes, while they may commit a crime just as violent as an adult’s, should receive treatment appropriate to their age and their culpability,” says Alison Parker, a senior researcher in the US programme at Human Rights Watch in New York.

While she is not familiar with the specifics of the Esmie Tseng case, she says an increasing number of minors are being tried as adults in the US.

The New York Times has reported that about 9,700 Americans are serving sentences as adults for crimes they committed as minors.

“They are still children. Our laws define them as children. They can’t sign legally binding contracts, they can’t vote, they can’t smoke, they can’t drink,” Ms Parker says.

“It is not that they shouldn’t be punished, but the punishment should be commensurate with who the offender is,” she argues.

She says Human Rights Watch has documented cases where minors in the adult correctional system suffer abuse – particularly in the case of girls, because there are comparatively few in the system.

Rick Buehler, head of staff training at the Topeka prison where Esmie is likely to serve her time, says there are no separate facilities for minors there.

She would not be the youngest person ever sent there, he says, but the staff “would be concerned about somebody so young”.

Right sentence?

Mr Horwitz is certainly concerned.

“There are truly hardened people there,” he says of the prison.

“If you were to sit down with this girl for five minutes, you would know she is not in any way, shape or form a threat to society. This was a domestic issue with tragic results.”

But the district attorney remains steadfast in the face of such arguments.

“People have to remember that she committed an incredibly heinous crime. I refuse to buy into this thing that she is a babe in the woods who is going to get victimised.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
May 3, 2006
Richard Allen Greene

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday May 4, 2006.
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