Douglas Thomas was older--17--when he committed murder. In some states, that's too young to undergo body-piercing without parental consent. In Virginia, that was old enough to send Thomas on his way to the death chamber.
Across America, prosecutors and legislators are pushing to try more juveniles as adults. Yet simultaneously, law-abiding adolescents are subject to ever-widening restrictions that treat them explicitly as non-adults--curfews, parental-consent requirements, an array of zero-tolerance policies at schools.
"The kids are being blamed for everything and credited with nothing," said Jason Zeidenberg, a policy analyst with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in Washington. "Kids today are a scapegoat generation."
If an 11-year-old can be charged as an adult, as Nathaniel Abraham was in Michigan, and if 20-year-olds are too young to buy beer, who is an adult these days and who isn't? The answer: It depends.
Though 18 is the age most commonly used to define adulthood in America, there is no single, clear-cut "age of majority." Instead, a welter of federal, state and local laws set widely varying thresholds for young people's rights and responsibilities.
At 18, they can vote, sign contracts, fight in Army combat units, file lawsuits, decide for themselves about medical treatment. But generally they are still too young to purchase liquor or rent a car.
Girls under 18 can put a baby up for adoption without parental consent, but most states require parents' involvement before a minor can have an abortion. The legal age of consent for sex ranges from 14 to 18, depending upon the state, and whether the sexual partner is a peer or adult.
Over the past decade, however, nearly every state has passed laws making it easier for minors to be tried in adult courts.
Among those states was Michigan, where Nathaniel Abraham faced a possible life sentence during his murder trial a year ago. The judge, assailing a "fundamentally flawed" approach to juvenile justice, instead sentenced the boy to youth detention, with release scheduled when he turns 21.
In Florida, Nathaniel Brazill, now 14, faces trial in March for the fatal shooting of an English teacher at his middle school. Conviction could bring a life prison term.
For a few young offenders, like Douglas Thomas in Virginia, a murder committed as a minor can lead to execution. The Justice Department, in a new report, says 17 men have been executed in the United States since 1973 for crimes committed as juveniles, including Thomas and three others this year.
Only the United States and Somalia, among all United Nations members, have not ratified a convention outlawing such executions, the report says.
From his seat on the West Virginia Supreme Court, Justice Larry Starcher is dismayed by the get-tough-on-kids approach.
"It's the prosecutors' way to go the easy route and react to the juvenile-crime hysteria that we see pretty much nationwide," Starcher said in a telephone interview. "Serious juvenile crime has gone down, but public perception is that it's gone up."
"I was on federal probation when I was 13 and I turned out OK," he said. "Let's not drop the ax too early."
While acknowledging that some youths commit horrible crimes, Starcher says today's adolescents overall are no worse than previous generations. The National District Attorneys Association suggests otherwise, referring in a policy statement to "a new breed of juvenile delinquent--the serious, violent and habitual juvenile offender."
"Kids are more prone, with less inhibition, to act violently in more extreme ways then ever in the past," said the co-chairman of the association's juvenile justice committee, District Attorney James Backstrom of Dakota County, Minn.
"Instead of resolving their disputes with fists, kids here are using baseball bats and handguns," he said. "We didn't see that five years ago in my community."
Nadine Strossen, a professor at New York Law School and president of the American Civil Liberties Union, said public officials often have their own agendas in mind when they talk about young people.
"For some political purposes, it makes sense to demonize them," she said. "The kids' own well-being is completely ignored.... They're so easily overlooked because they don't vote."