Editorial: Drop the murder charges in Old Mill Creek case

Until all the evidence is in, it's difficult to know precisely what happened in the early morning hours Tuesday during an alleged car burglary in Lake County that led to the fatal shooting of a 14-year-old apparent accomplice.

Authorities say six teenagers, who arrived in a car stolen earlier in the week, were involved in the burglary a little after 1 a.m. outside a remote house in unincorporated Old Mill Creek. One of them, 14-year-old Jaquan Swopes, was killed when the owner of the house opened fire with a registered handgun after, he told police, one of the teens approached the house carrying an object in his hand.

The homeowner was not charged. We do not have enough detail about the level of the threat he might have felt to question that or to suggest that he should have been. But Swopes' five alleged accomplices have been charged with murder as a result of his death.

That seems far-fetched.

The charges are allowed by Illinois law that says those engaged in a serious crime are liable for a death that may occur from the commission of that crime.

There is some logic to that provision if, say, one of a ring of burglars kills a burglary victim. But in this case, it presumably was one of the accomplices who was killed, and none of his accomplices pulled the trigger or apparently were even carrying a gun with a trigger to pull.

In filing the charges, Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim said the other five teens "were solely responsible for placing the now-deceased 14-year-old in danger." But that's not true. We would argue that unless coercion can be shown, the 14-year-old put himself in danger.

The reality is, these are not credible charges. We suspect that they have been filed primarily as leverage for plea bargains.

In no way do we mean to defend the five suspects against any real crimes they may have committed. Details of what happened are not as yet clear. Nor is any prior criminal history of those who are accused. Common sense suggests that something untoward was taking place, given the hour, the stolen car and the high-speed chase that led to their apprehensions.

But criminal justice must be just that: Justice. And for it to be justice, the charge must fit the crime.

The death of a 14-year-old is a tragedy, no matter the circumstances.

So are unduly harsh charges that could lead to unreasonably hard sentences that have the power to put these teens beyond redemption or rehabilitation.

Respectfully, we encourage State's Attorney Nerheim to reconsider the charges and to file some that are more appropriate.

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