It’s currently True Crime Week on A&E, with every day being filled with programming about murders, court cases, and unsolved mysteries. It’s all a bit icky but I do have to admit that I have a weakness for true crime. That’s why, when A&E aired the 2017 documentary Kids Who Kill yesterday, I ended up watching.
As soon as Kids Who Kill started, I found myself wondering if I had watched it before. It turned out that I hadn’t. Instead, my sense of Deja Vu was due to the face that I had seen all of the stories featured in Kids Who Kill on numerous other true crime programs. One reason why there are so many true crime programs is that they’re cheap and easy to make. Most of the information is in the public domain and you can always grab footage from the local news broadcasts of the time. The reporters who covered the murders and the trials are always willing to build their brand by appearing on the program and saying stuff like, “Things like this just didn’t happen in our town.” If the actual murderer is still alive and willing to be interviewed, chances are that his story will be told on at least a dozen different programs.
That’s certainly the case with Eric Smith, who was 13 years old when he murdered a 4 year-old boy. Smith has been incarcerated since 1994 and his willingness to be interviewed has led to him being featured on several different programs, including this documentary. In every interview, Smith says, not surprisingly, that he was an abused and emotionally neglected child who, having been bullied his entire life, lashed out in one terrible moment and that he’s no longer that child and that he deserves to be released from prison. (You can always tell if the program is sympathetic to Smith by whether or not they include the fact that he sodomized the boy that he killed. Kids Who Kill leaves out that fact.) What Smith always seems to miss is that one can very legitimately say, “That sucks you were abused and you never really had a chance but, at the same time, you strangled and beat a four year-old to death so fuck you.”
Kids Who Kill tells several stories about people like Eric Smith, who committed murder when they were just a minor and who were subsequently sent to prison, often for life. It’s full of contemporary news footage and psychoanalysts offering up theories about why kids kill but it never really digs too deeply into the subject. There are several prison interviews with the killers. At least two of them blame “first shooter video games.” (While I would certainly be concerned about someone who spent 24 hours a day playing a violent video game, it’s also hard to buy that a 16 year-old couldn’t tell the difference between Doom and real life. If you thought Doom — or Halo, as another shooter claims — was real life then you obviously had issues before you even picked up your first controller.) Every killer interviewed expresses remorse but, with the exception of Nathan Brazill, who was convicted of shooting a teacher, none of them seem particularly sincere about it. Then again, one could argue that they seem insincere because a lifetime in prison has conditioned them not to express any emotions that could be mistaken for weakness. Perhaps I was being too quick to expect tears from men who live in a confined society where tears can lead to being targeted.
It’s a complex subject, kids who kill. Can we forgive? Can murderers be rehabilitated? Can someone mature into becoming a different person than they were when they were 16? Is it more important to punish or to rehabilitate? These are important questions and, unfortunately, they’re not the type of questions that are really explored in any sort of depth by most true crime shows and documentaries. Kids Who Kill offers up some disturbing stories but it never scratches beneath the surface.