The Connecticut Supreme Court on Friday unanimously ordered a new sentencing hearing for Keith Belcher, a Black child sentenced to 60 years in adult prison because the sentencing judge deemed him a “superpredator.”
Keith Belcher was just 14 years old when he was arrested in 1993. He was prosecuted in adult court and convicted in the sexual assault and robbery of an elderly woman.
At the sentencing hearing on January 24, 1997, the court said, “The conduct here was just so inhumane as to be considered subhuman.” The court continued:
Professor John [J. DiIulio, Jr.], of Princeton University has coined the term ‘superpredator,’ which refers to a group of radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters who assault, rape, rob and burglarize. Mr. Belcher, you are a charter member of that group. You have no fears, from your conduct, of the pains of imprisonment; nor do you suffer from the pangs of conscience.
The court imposed a total effective sentence of 60 years in prison—the longest determinate sentence imposed on a 14-year-old in Connecticut, Deputy Assistant Public Defender Alexandra Harrington, told CT Post last year. “[N]o other person in Connecticut is currently serving a sentence longer than 20 years for a non-homicide offense committed at age 14.”
That sentence was imposed in an illegal manner, the state’s highest court held, because the sentencing court relied on the erroneous and discredited theory of teenage “superpredators.”
In 1995, John DiIulio predicted a coming wave of “tens of thousands of severely morally impoverished juvenile super-predators” who would include ‘‘elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches’’ and ‘‘have absolutely no respect for human life.’’
These predictions disproportionately demonized Black teens. DiIulio wrote: ‘‘[N]ot only is the number of young [B]lack criminals likely to surge, but also the [B]lack crime rate, both black-on-black and black-on-white, is increasing, so that as many as [one] half of these juvenile super-predators could be young [B]lack males.’’
But as the Connecticut Supreme Court noted, the data did not support DiIulio’s assertions—juvenile offense rates had already dropped from their peak, and five years after he coined the term “superpredator,” the Justice Department found that “the rate of serious juvenile offending as of the mid-[1990s] was comparable to that of a generation ago.” A year later, in 2001, the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General labeled the superpredator theory a myth.
“[T]he superpredator theory was baseless when it originally was espoused and has since been thoroughly debunked and universally rejected as a myth,” the Connecticut Supreme Court found. “[I]t therefore constituted false and unreliable information that a sentencing court ought not consider in crafting a sentence for a juvenile offender.”
The sentencing court’s reliance on this racially biased myth was especially problematic in this case, the court explained, because it called into question whether the court would have sentenced Keith Belcher as harshly if he was not Black.
“The superpredator theory tapped into and amplified racial stereotypes that date back to the founding of our nation”—when enslaved Black people were legally considered to be property, not human beings, the court wrote.
In the mid-19th century, the court explained, adolescence was recognized as a distinct developmental stage for white children, prompting social reforms aimed at directing “wayward youth” to reform schools rather than incarcerating them with adults.
Black children, however, remained enslaved and “were viewed as subhuman.” As a result, the court wrote, by 1850, rather than being sent to reform schools, ‘‘a disproportionate number of Black youths were jailed in cities with majority white populations.’’
The court traced the disparate treatment of Black youth in our criminal legal system today to this “historical fiction that Black adolescents are not actually ‘children’ meriting societal protection.”
Unlike white children who were seen as vulnerable and deserving of legal protections, Black children were seen as dangerous criminals that the public needs to be protected from—and the superpredator theory amplified this presumption of guilt and dangerousness by invoking images of packs of Black teens prowling the streets like animals.
The resulting media frenzy and public panic led nearly every state in the country to change its laws, subjecting children to punishments that were designed for adults. The consequences of these legal changes, the court wrote, fell disproportionately on Black teens.
“[B]y invoking the superpredator theory to sentence the young, Black male defendant in the present case,” the court concluded, the sentencing court “relied on materially false, racial stereotypes that perpetuate systemic inequities—demanding harsher sentences—that date back to the founding of our nation.”
In addition, the sentencing court violated U.S. Supreme Court precedent, including Miller v. Alabama, requiring that the hallmark characteristics of youth—impulsivity, submission to peer pressure, deficient judgment, and the capacity for change—must be considered as mitigating factors in sentencing. Instead, by relying on the superpredator myth, the sentencing court counted those qualities as an aggravating factor against Keith Belcher.
“[T]he superpredator myth is precisely the type of materially false information that courts should not rely on in making sentencing decisions,” the court concluded. “The court’s reliance on the superpredator theory, and its view that it had to protect society from a charter member of this remorseless group, dominated its sentencing remarks”—it was, the court found, “the prism through which the court viewed this defendant.”
Because the court’s “reliance on the false and pernicious superpredator theory in the present case so infected the sentencing that the sentence was imposed in an illegal manner,” the supreme court granted Mr. Belcher’s motion to correct an illegal sentence and remanded the case for resentencing.