Should the 14-Year-Old Who Murdered a Father of Two On a City Bus Be Tried As an Adult?

kahton anderson

Two weeks ago, on a B15 bus going through Bed-Stuy, 14 year-old Kahton Anderson opened fire, killing 39-year-old father of two, Angel Rojas. Rojas was not the intended victim. Anderson had been shooting at another teenager; the two were allegedly in a feud. But Rojas was the one who was struck down by the bullets, only to die minutes later. Anderson fled the scene, but he—and his .357 revolver—were soon apprehended and taken to the local precinct. Rojas’s body has been returned to and buried in his native Dominican Republic, and Anderson faces a murder trial where, it was decided yesterday, though he has not yet graduated from middle school, Anderson will be charged as an adult.

The New York Times reports Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson said in a statement, Angel Rojas “did not deserve to die so tragically, and we will hold the defendant Kahton Anderson responsible for taking the life of this innocent and hard-working man.” Outside the courthouse, Anderson’s father—who identified himself to reporters only as “Mr. Anderson”—said, “Kahton is a child, who thinks like a child. Kahton’s a tall child. He’s a boy; I’m a man.” Indeed, as the Times notes, “though Kahton had not yet graduated from middle school, he was taller than the detective escorting him out of the local precinct house,” but that hardly makes him an adult. Kahton was typical of most American boys his age. His interests revolved around video games (his PlayStation 4 was a prized possession, which he “earned through work and chores”), sports (his height helped him excel at basketball, and NBA2K was among his favorite PSP games), and clothes (particularly sneakers, he alternated between “Air Jordans and Reeboks, sometimes a new pair every month). Kahton’s mother was an involved parent and “regularly attended parent-teacher conferences.” And so what went wrong?

In a city that is enjoying unprecedentedly low levels of crime, it’s become easy enough to feel like the murder of Angel Rojas was an anomaly, an incomprehensible tragedy that was an exception to the new norm of safe streets and lack of gun violence. And yet, even as large swaths of the city have crime statistics that seem more representative of the most elite suburbs than of the largest urban environment in the country, there remain pockets of New York that are still plagued by violence—including gang violence. The Times explores the world that Kahton inhabited, finding that “in the poorest patches of Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York and Brownsville, Brooklyn, violence is as thick as smog, alliances as fluid as water, quarrels as big as the Internet. The grievances behind their bullets make sense only to them.” It was in an environment like this that Kahton found himself greeted by rival gang members every time he left school at the end of the day, eventually having to transfer schools, but not really escaping the problem. It was in an environment like this that Kahton wound up with a (sealed) police record at the age of 11. It was in an environment like this that Kahton got his hands on a gun. And it was in an environment like this that members of the Twan Family gang (Kahton’s rivals) boarded the B15 bus on March 20, after being alerted by some girls in the back of the bus that Kahton was on board. The Times reports, “in a security video of the scene, one of them pulled at his waistband, as if for a gun.” In an environment like this, Kahton opened fire, ending the life of Angel Rojas, and ending his own childhood.

At the time of the shooting, one of Angel Rojas’s relatives said of Kahton, “It was a 14-year-old. I feel like two lives have been taken.” And indeed, if Kahton is found guilty of murder as an adult, his life will have been taken just as surely as Rojas’s was. I can’t imagine the pain that the Rojas family is going through, and I whole-heartedly agree (how could anyone not?) with DA Thompson’s statement that Rojas “did not deserve to die as tragically as he did,” but more than that, I don’t think that Kahton Anderson deserved to live in a gang violence-plagued neighborhood (one which, not incidentally, is less than a mile away from some of the wealthiest parts of Brooklyn) where he had easy (or, at least, easy enough) access to guns. I don’t think that a 14-year-old former honors student and class president should have to live in fear for his life to the point that he ends another person’s life. And I don’t think that a 14-year-old should be tried as an adult because if there’s any chance of rehabilitating a criminal, this is it. Kahton Anderson committed a horrific crime, and deserves to stand trial. But Kahton Anderson is not an adult. Angel Rojas lost his life, but Kahton Anderson’s isn’t gone yet. And if there is a chance to save his life, then—as a society—it’s our responsibility to do that.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen