The first kid into the vicious beating of a Chicago teen has been convicted of first degree murder (defined here). I came down pretty hard on this last time, mostly because of personal bias. I don't think people understand the corrupting force of having to constantly physically protect yourself when you're young. Until you get in the head of kid who goes to school every day thinking it could happen, and approaching that day in that manner, you'll never completely understand what's wrong with urban public schools.
My sense of this is that most kids would like to walk to school in peace, but somewhere around fifth grade or so, the corruption reaches out and taints them. You start by changing how you walk, the manner in which you speak, what jokes you laugh at, and when. Then you change your criteria for your friends, and try to assemble as many of them as possible. You first forays into direct violence may be only defensive or retaliatory, but this quickly spirals into offensive violence, so as to burnish your rep.
The hood is a galaxy of competing powers, and to be born there is to be drafted into your nation's Army. To spend time lamenting your citizenship, to be less then zealous in defense of your country, is to be unpatriotic, to invite charges of treason, with predictable penalties. And even this formulation makes it all sound too neat, too rational. We are, after all, ultimately talking about children, and thus people vulnerable to the worst impulses.
My memories are, conveniently, of victimhood--the time I got stomped out on Liberty Heights, or getting smashed over the head with a trash can. But I tend not to dwell on my own transgressions. I tend not to think about what I saw, or what I might have done. But the fact is that, I could easily--easily--see myself punching Derrion Albert in the middle of that brawl, with no expectation that he was going to die. In fact, I strongly believe that they did not think they were going to kill that kid. I'm not excusing it, I'm trying to explain the mind-set. I have a harder time seeing myself picking up a two by four. But I'm not sure there's much daylight, and surely I know people who I'd classify as "good kids" who I could have seen doing it. Moreover, when you're young, and in a certain type of neighborhood you actually want the dude who's going to swing the two by four on your team.
I don't oppose trying these kids. In fact I think you have to. I'm less convinced that they should be tried as adults. And I'm even less convinced that twenty to life is an appropriate penalty for a sixteen year-old. I wish there was less calls for blood here, and more thinking about what's gone wrong in these communities.