'So Young and so Untender' Remorseless Children and the Expectations of the Law

100 Pages Posted: 16 Dec 2005


A nine-year-old speaks with apparent callousness as he walks by the body of the girl he has killed. A fourteen-year-old jokes about "body parts in her pocket" after bashing in her mother's head with a candlestick holder. And a fifteen-year-old laughingly names his accomplice "Homicide" after participating in a robbery that culminated in the victim's death. Seemingly remorseless acts such as these can have a crucial impact on the way a child or adolescent fares in the juvenile justice or criminal system. Yet, when one looks closely at what the courts interpret as indicators of remorselessness - taking into account psychological findings about the developmental stages, sociological theories about the code of the street, and literary portrayals of the paradoxes of the human mind - these indicators often appear ambiguous, the courts' interpretations problematic.

This article employs psychology, sociology, and literature to investigate the expectation of remorse in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. More specifically, it presents seven in-depth case studies of juveniles who were charged with murder or attempted murder and whose apparent lack of remorse played a salient role in the legal process. Through these case studies, the article challenges the law's assumption that any decent, redeemable person, regardless of age, will exhibit sorrow and contrition after committing a heinous crime.

Beyond challenging the courts' ability to interpret the emotional state of a juvenile, the article questions the validity of remorse as a predictor of future character. Drawing on Biblical and literary examples and the psychoanalytic theory of the superego, the article suggests that remorse, as the most agonizing form of guilt, may actually undermine the ability to "turn one's life around" and begin anew.

Suggested Citation

Duncan, Martha-Grace, 'So Young and so Untender' Remorseless Children and the Expectations of the Law. Columbia Law Review, Vol. 102, p. 1469, 2002; Emory Public Law Reserch Paper No. 05-40. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=870452

Martha-Grace Duncan (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-727-5768 (Phone)
404-727-6820 (Fax)

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics