Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Old Enough to Know Better: My Classmate's Killer is Finally Headed to Prison

In March of 2012 I left daffodils alongside a makeshift memorial with a stuffed panda, burned out candles, a framed picture of Annie, and a statuette of a girl holding a bucket that somebody had filled with Sour Patch. Here's what's left today.
Four years ago, I watched from my parents' bedroom window as the police pulled Annie's battered body from a yellow rescue raft and transferred her to a white van. A blue tarp covered her, so I wouldn't know until today how she'd been hit fifteen times in the face with a metal shovel, her features so smashed that her parents could only identify her by the dimple on her chin. But I would learn the very next day that we'd briefly attended the same middle school. She transferred before her death. Her killer stayed there with me. 
Let me back up. My house faces a river that runs along a jogging trail. We're the last street in my suburban town and that river, jogging trail, and surrounding no man's land divide us from the next town over. Before March 11, 2012, the only cars I'd ever seen on the trail were city maintenance vehicles. That was a Sunday. I came home from church and saw both police and civilian cars on the parkway, as well as a helicopter buzzing overhead. I thought maybe a child had gone missing-my parents never trusted me to play along the river when I was small. I could see all the cars converging on the same spot and grabbed a pair of binoculars to see what the situation was. 
Utah's Jordan River is a sluggish creek that not many bother to raft. But when I saw them raise a definitely-not-child-sized covered corpse from the water, I thought some river voyager had capsized. The river was swollen that time of year. Swollen so much that when my friends and I left daffodils at Annie's death point later that week, the trail was flooded and we had to take a different route, passing a news van in the process.
I spent the rest of my Sunday and the following days tracking the news. Slowly, her story unfolded. Female victim. Young Asian female victim. No, young Caucasian female victim, once they got a better look at her battered face. Suspected murder victim. Annie Kasprzak, 15, my age. Current student at Summit High School. But before that, we'd walked the halls of Oquirrh Hills Middle School together. Enough people knew her that we had a "wear red for Annie" day. Maybe Darwin Christopher Bagshaw showed up to school in red, too. As her boyfriend that would be expected. But I didn't keep tabs on him back then. You don't keep tabs on people before you know they're killers.
Chris was fourteen to Annie's fifteen, one of those ninth graders that hadn't hit his birthday yet. That didn't stop them from dating. Or anything else. That night, she left a note for her parents saying she and Chris were running away to California. Then she met up with him at the city park and they walked together until they left city limits. She told him she was pregnant* and he believed it. Did she tell him in the park? Or did he not know until they reached the no man's land? Did he lure her there, where no one could hear her scream, and where the river waited to receive her body? Or did she tell her tale on the parkway, where he snapped, grabbed a shovel that had been abandoned nearby, beat her to death?
At that point, I don't know. It all boils down to whose attorney you believe. 
Chris Bagshaw's defense says it was a crime of passion, and beyond that, we should look kindly on his crime because of his age. I'm surprised how many people who aren't paid to preserve his freedom legitimately share that opinion. A friend's mother told me yesterday that it was an "excusable crime" because fourteen year olds can't think straight or control their emotions. If my view is colored by the fact that I went to school with both these people, so be it. I don't think murder is ever an excusable crime. 
I've heard of cases where toddlers shake baby siblings to death or young elementary schoolers kill neighbors playing wrestling games. Those are accidents. Those are people who don't have the ability to process and react to their circumstances. Those are the reasons we have more lenient laws for child criminals. This isn't that. Fourteen is old enough to know what murder is. You can't accidentally hit someone in the face with a shovel fifteen times. 
I never knew Annie before her death, and I only knew Chris in a "Didn't we have science together?" way, but her murder impacted me. It changed the way I viewed life and death throughout high school. Reading back over my ninth grade journal, the next several entries following her murder are me coping with the death of a stranger. How I developed a fear of bridges since Annie was dumped off one. How I got scared when I took my hands off the railing and mistook blood from a cut on my finger for hers. How I denied the news people who found my friends and I leaving flowers at the bridge and asked me if I thought it was a suicide. How I cringed whenever someone said "kill" in a joking manner. How I wasn't sure if I could keep playing Hunger Games along the river with my friend Hanna because a teenager had actually died there. How I started listening to The Band Perry's "If I Die Young" on repeat and made my own bucket list. How I looked out at the sea of silver and purple caps three years after and imagined a timeline where Annie might have graduated with us.
Her death haunted me for years. When you're young, every death of a young person feels like losing one of your own, even if you weren't friends. I couldn't bring myself to buy a pair of red tennis shoes until college because that's what Annie wore at the time of her death. A lost bloody shoe promoted a trail walker to call the police, who later matched it to the one on her body. Just yesterday I went jogging along that trail and had to stop and read the "RIP Annie". It's still scratched into the bridge four years after the makeshift memorial was cleared away. Then I came home and found Darwin's face staring up at me from the newspaper. He was arrested during my senior year when he was still a minor. After more than a year of back and forth over whether he should be charged as an adult, he's finally been sentenced. Fifteen years to life, expected to average out at twenty. He is eighteen now. Some headlines are calling him a teen. In others, he's an "eighteen year old man." Most papers use the terms interchangeably throughout their articles. 
Eighteen is a no man's land too.
I agree that children should not always be held to the same standard of accountability as adults. Peer pressure and poor parenting too often motivate teenagers to commit crimes like theft, vandalism, drug use, curfew violations, and running away. But right is right and wrong is still wrong no matter how old you are. I'm sick of hearing adults talk about their former drug use as if it doesn't matter because "everybody smokes pot in high school." Um, no, I didn't. And you didn't have to either. Any child old enough to ride in the passenger seat of a car is old enough to understand the consequences and morality of their own actions. 
Ageism stops us from taking teenagers and their crimes at face value. A fourteen year old is no less of a murderer than his adult counterparts anymore than a fifteen year old can be less dead than an adult victim. If we continue to subscribe to the idea that teenagers are "unformed" adults, that their emotions-rage, fear, grief-besiege them differently than adults, pretty soon people start getting away with murder. If not in the justice system, then in the way we judge them in our communities. 

*Annie's autopsy later revealed that she was not in fact pregnant 

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