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Editorial: Crime and punishment

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Last week’s sentencing of the final two teenagers charged in the brutal slaying of a Chinese food deliveryman raises questions about the nature of justice and society’s often conflicting expectations of the legal system,

Five teenagers, all from southeast Queens, killed Jin Sheng Liu, 44, when he delivered $60 worth of food to an abandoned house in Springfield Gardens. When he arrived at the house, they threw a sheet over his head and beat him to death with a brick.

It was a particularly brutal and heartless crime that became all the more shocking when it was learned that it was planned and committed by teenagers from a middle-class background with no criminal history. As Liu bled to death on the sidewalk, the killers went to one of their homes and dined on the food he had delivered.

No one would argue that despite their youth his attackers do not deserve harsh punishment. And yet we find it at least ironic that the person farthest from the brick that killed Mr. Liu was given one of the harshest sentences while the teen who delivered the fatal blow gets only seven years.

Robert Savage, now 16, of Jamaica, was 14 on the night Liu was killed. He admitted to wielding the brick, pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to seven years to life in prison. Despite his age, under the designated felony law, Savage was tried as an adult. He will spend the next seven years segregated in a prison unit set aside for adolescents who have committed vicious crimes.

Last week Stacy Royster, 19, was sentenced to 17 years in prison. She admitted to using her cell phone to make the call ordering the food delivered to the abandoned house. While admitting her role in the crime, Royster said she did not know that her friends planned to kill the deliveryman

Queens Supreme Court Judge Robert Hanophy was not persuaded. He told Royster, “Of all the people here, you have the toughest road of all because you still don’t get it.”

Royster was just days away from entering college. She has thrown her own life down the toilet.

On the same day, Hanophy sentenced Jamel Murphy, 18, of Springfield Gardens to 11 years in prison. He told Murphy, “You, of all people, have shown the most contrition here. I believe something can still be made of your life.”

Should a judge be persuaded by the “contrition” of a defendant on the day of sentencing? Contrition may be sincere, but it is also part of a legal strategy that is colored by advice from defense attorneys and future plans for an appeal.

The judge described the killing as “an act of moral bankruptcy.” He lamented that his sentencing options were limited and said he would have preferred to sentence each of the teenagers to life in prison. Liu’s widow agreed. She and her children have suffered an incredible loss. Their pain has been enormous and is probably endless.

Both Royster and Murphy pleaded guilty to armed robbery not murder. Will her sentence be revisited if a year from now Royster shows more contrition? Certainly not. We believe that the judge was right when he told Murphy that he could still make something out of his life. But that is also true for Royster and the other defendants. Like the judge, we have no crystal ball, no way of knowing who will emerge from prison ready to live a law-abiding life.

As a society that balances justice with compassion, we must hope that all five teenagers will be able to salvage their lives.

The stiff punishment is called for and will serve as a warning to others tempted to engage in a similar crime. But we cannot forget that these were teenagers who will be young adults when they emerge from prison. Punishment is certain. The larger goal must be rehabilitation. If not, the tragedy is only compounded.

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