I’ve taught at USC for 24 years. Two years after I arrived, the riots happened all around USC — but the campus was not touched. The university has made a concerted effort to be a part of its South Los Angeles neighborhood, even as another killing of two Chinese graduate students back in 2012 led to more fences and more security cameras and increased patrols. So violent crime is way down, which is hardly a comfort to Ji’s parents, who lost their only child.
The Los Angeles Police Department is committed to protecting the community, including the students who live in off-campus apartments in the neighborhood. So when Ji was murdered, it was only a matter of time — a very short time — before the suspects were identified. Killing a young man who was obviously a USC student a few blocks from USC, with 150 security cameras capturing all activity around campus, was not only senseless, but also colossally stupid. If you want to get caught, there’s no place where the heat is more intense.
So it was that four days later, the four suspects sat in a Los Angeles courtroom for the first time, two “adults” and two juveniles, all of whom will be tried as adults. Three boys and a girl. Out for a night of fun. Andrew Garcia’s mother cried outside the courtroom, saying her 18-year-old son is innocent and had gone to spend the day at the beach. Garcia was charged with capital murder, along with Jonathan DelCarmen, 19; Alberto Ochoa, 17; and Alejandra Guerrero, 16. The two minors, Ochoa and Guerrero, were reportedly fighting tears in the courtroom. Hard to feel sorry for them.
After killing Ji, police say the group did go to the beach, where they robbed a couple who managed to escape and flag down police. A day at the beach, indeed.
Senseless violence is, almost by definition, hard to understand. Not that I can understand terrorists who kill from hate, but at least we can identify a reason — a terrifying one, to be sure, grounded in a violent belief system — for what they do. Two gangs go to war. Extremists kill in the name of belief. But why do four kids from LA kill a Chinese grad student? Are they jealous of his education? I don’t think so.
Garcia’s mother, father, sister and brother all attended the hearing, insisting that he is a “good boy.” It appears not. It appears — understanding the legal presumption of innocence and what appears to be the substantial evidence of guilt — that these four teenagers (and a 14-year-old girl is also reportedly under suspicion) are not “good” kids.
Years ago, I read a volume of interviews that the Vera Institute of Justice conducted with violent youth. What was most terrifying was not the anger that came through, but the utter lack of humanity. Violent predators are not like the rest of us. They kill for fun, for sport, for the sake of it. To compare them to animals is an insult to animals. To expect that we can rehabilitate them assumes a will to change.
Prosecutors have yet to decide whether they will seek the death penalty for the two adults. The two juveniles, under state law, are not subject to capital punishment, but face the prospect of life imprisonment without parole. It is unlikely that these four will ever see the light of day. If only there were only four of them.
Susan Estrich is a law professor in Southern California and managed the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis.