At 13, he's too young to drive, drink or vote. But he's on trial for murder

THE DEFENDANT often looks puzzled, if not dazed. You can see he is trying to follow what is going on in the court around him, but that most of the time he cannot. Often, he is trying to fend off sleep, like a child losing concentration in a maths lesson. Then, Nathaniel Abraham is a child. He is 13.

For two weeks, the scene has been nearly the same. Shortly after 9am, prison officers escort this boy less than 5ft tall into the austere courtroom in Pontiac, Michigan, to stand trial for murder. His progress to the defence table is slow - he is wearing handcuffs and leg irons.

The murder was almost ordinary. Prosecutors say Abraham fired the shot from a .22 calibre rifle that struck the head of Ronnie Greene outside a corner shop on 29 October 1997 and killed him.

But the case is not ordinary. Abraham was 11 years old. He is now being tried as an adult on first-degree homicide. If he is convicted, he faces life in prison, with the possibility of parole.

As the case proceeds - it is expected to go to the jury at the end of the week - the controversy surrounding it grows.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, are accusing Michigan of attempting to throw away a young boy's life as if it were "human garbage". The trial is broadcast, from gavel to gavel, on Court TV and was examined on the CBS current affairs show, 60 Minutes, on Sunday.

Prosecutors appear unmoved by the furore. They say that Abraham, who had 22 previous run-ins with police, was hiding in a clump of trees across the road from his prey when he fired the shot. They say he had bragged with friends before that he was planning to kill someone.

"This is not your normal 11-year-old boy," said David Gorcyca, an Oakland County Prosecutor. The prosecution, in fact, is doing no more than has been asked of it by politicians.

A state law passed in Michigan in 1997 that aims to clamp down on juvenile crime makes it possible for children of any age who commit murder to be tried as adults. A defendant, in theory, could be five or even younger.

Abraham's lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, already renowned for defending the mercy-killing doctor Jack Kervorkian, also known as Dr Death, says the boy was shooting at trees and that a bullet ricocheted from a branch and hit Ronnie Greene in the head.

He also loudly decries the "absurdity" of trying his client as an adult, especially since psychological testing assessed him as having the mental capacity of a child aged six or seven. Mr Fieger says Abraham is the youngest person to be tried as an adult in US history.

"Nathaniel Abraham is being tried as an adult and he can't drive a car, he can't drink, he can't vote, he can't join the military service," Mr Fieger said on 60 Minutes.

He also highlighted the right of Abraham that is enshrined in the US Constitution, to be tried by a jury of his "peers". There are, of course, no pre-teens on the jury in this case.

Abraham, who was also interviewed by CBS, appeared to have a limited understanding of his plight. He said he thought that the definition of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt meant the prosecution had to "prove me guilty with a big explanation".

But the sister of the victim shows no forgiveness for Abraham and angrily dismisses the contention that he was shooting at trees or telephone poles, as Mr Fieger suggests.

"My brother's head don't look like no light pole or his head don't look like a tree limb," said Nicole Greene.

There is scant sign of a change of heart among the politicians who passed the law allowing minors to be tried as adults and, potentially, be put away for life.

State Senator William Van Regenmorter was one of the sponsors of the relevant law. More important than the children and their fate, he argued, is the threat they pose to society.

"I don't think they are beyond redemption, but whether they are rehabilitable or not is secondary in those rare cases to the incredible danger they pose for all the rest," he said.

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