That's the first question we addressed when discussing the Walter Dean Myers novel Monster on Tuesday in RDG 598. The introductory activity was an interesting one. On a slip of paper, we pretended we were the jury at the end of the novel and cast our vote for guilty or innocent. In my way, I had to point out that while I didn't find Steve guilty, I also could not find him innocent. The best I could come up with is not guilty of the crime for which he was tried.
One of the main reasons I cannot find him innocent has to do with the reliability of the narrator. (We read an article about it, and of course I can't find that article now.) The story is told in script format; the main character is writing the screenplay for a movie. For some reluctant/struggling readers, this can be a little off-putting at first, especially if they have had little exposure to drama. But it's Steve's story, and he reserves the poetic license to change any details he wants to serve his purposes. We see this most clearly in his testimony, which was pointed out by one of my classmates. In his musings that do not belong to the script portion of the story, he reflects on going into the convenience store to buy mints. In his testimony, he says that he'd never been in the store. I don't know if I trust Steve to tell the whole truth now.
But should he be found guilty of murdering the gentleman in the store? I don't think so. Accessory, at best.
What's interesting is I thought about this particular discussion on Wednesday, when a student of mine locked my class in the patio, which caused a ruckus in the hallway during instructional time. I took my class outside to play vocabulary baseball--a nice change from studying in chairs under fluorescent lights. On the way in, one student convinces another to lock the door. The one doing the convincing might have been the one who also caused the ruckus, but I have no witnesses to corroborate that story. What I do have eye-witness testimony of, however, is the student who locked the door. Back in the classroom, one student tries to inflict the consequences of her actions on the other student because the other student told her to do it. Steve Harmon didn't kill the guy in the store. Student 2 didn't lock the class in the patio. They didn't like that answer too much.
Many people thought Steve to be a monster. Do I think he's a monster? No. And the message I hope kids take away from the novel is to think about the consequences of their actions, and keep themselves from becoming monsters.