Patterico's Pontifications

12/13/2008

When Children Commit Crimes

Filed under: Crime — DRJ @ 3:38 pm



[Guest post by DRJ]

You may have read about an 8-year-old St. Johns, Arizona, boy who reportedly shot and killed his father and his father’s friend in early November. Prosecutors are conflicted about whether or how to prosecute this case, but they point out the planning that went into the crime:

“Prosecutors in the case in the small community of St. Johns are conflicted. They say in court documents that the juvenile system is ill-equipped to handle the third-grade boy.

It’s not their desire, they say, to “persecute” a child who might not fit the description of normal. But they also say a balance must be struck between rehabilitation and justice for the victims while considering the boy’s “tender age.”

Police say the boy planned and methodically carried out the shootings, using a .22-caliber rifle when his father, 29-year-old Vincent Romero, and 39-year-old Tim Romans returned home from work on Nov. 5.

In a police interview, the boy admitted firing at least two shots at each of the men, but the child’s attorney has questioned the admissibility of the confession because no lawyer or parent was present.

The boy also told police in the interview that his stepmother had spanked him five times the night before the shootings because he did not bring home some papers from school. According to documents later released by prosecutors, the boy kept a tally of spankings, vowing the 1,000th would be his last.”

On the other side are those who question whether a child of 8 could form the requisite intent:

The case has tugged at the hearts of people across the country, who look at their own children and question how an 8-year-old could possibly have been responsible for such a crime.

“It is not a crime in the traditional way we define a crime,” says Marsha Levick, legal director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, “because he simply lacks the intent to commit a crime.”

While many states would allow the boy to be held accountable and even tried as an adult, Levick said that doesn’t mean an 8-year-old should be thrust into the criminal justice system.

“I think there should be great doubt in the public’s mind of whether this child is even guilty of the crime,” she said. “Even if he in fact pulled the trigger, treating him as an adult, holding him responsible in the same way we hold adults responsible is completely inappropriate.”

Prosecutors have offered a plea deal that would resolve the case without transferring it to adult court, and defense counsel is considering the deal. The report notes the prosecutors have asked to withdraw one of the murder charges but defense counsel objected because he thinks “it’s a tactical move aimed at trying to refile the charge when the boy is older.” Perhaps part of the prosecution plea deal involves holding one charge to use at a later time, in case the boy has continued criminal problems.

Meanwhile, the court has stayed further proceedings pending a competency evaluation scheduled for mid-December. I think there is a reasonable concern this child may have mental health issues — and to many it would probably be a relief if he does — but diagnosing mental illness in children is difficult. My understanding is that a diagnosis of mental illness is based on behavior but common symptoms of mental disorders (shyness, nervousness, strange eating habits and outbursts of temper) occur as a normal part of a child’s development.

It’s a hard case.

— DRJ

27 Responses to “When Children Commit Crimes”

  1. That is absolutely wrenching.

    Poor kid was driven crazy (not legally crazy, perhaps) by constant anger from his mother. 1000 spankings? I have no problem with using corporal punishment, but you would have to be braindead to try the same thing 1000 times.

    Parents have to understand that children have enormous potential power… they have to be treated with that in mind. You can bully them, but then you will find you’ve made a monster. You can indulge them, but then you’ll have a burden. Or you can inspire them and have something wonderful. Sadly, being a parent is extremely tough, and our society is so selfish, that a lot of parents really drop the ball.

    I can’t imagine what the mental life of this child is like.

    Juan (4cdfb7)

  2. I’m trying to recall whether I could count to 1000 as an 8 year-old.

    NCC (ce69ff)

  3.      Wow. A kid under 10 years old to actually considering killing someone other than in make believe. Kids’ under 10 years old playing cops & robbers, cowboys & Indians, army vs. army obviously contemplate “killing” in make believe, but thinking about killing someone for real, I’ve never heard of such a thing.
         By the way, I’m pretty sure that “his stepmother had spanked him five times the night before the shootings” means that his stepmother slapped his buttocks (or perhaps the back of his thighs) five times, not that he endured 5 separate spanking sessions of mutlple slaps. Whether or not a 1000 spankings over, let’s say, a year’s time is appropriate, I don’t know enough of the circumstances.
         Juan, while I applaud your view about treating kids in, let’s say, a continuous “positive” fashion, I think your view is too simplistic. I think that one could come to an opposite conclusion with respect to each of your premises, and be as correct as often as you. That is,

    You can bully a kid, and you will find you’ve made a kid appropriately docile or way too docile.
    You can indulge a kid, and then you’ll have a wonderfully creative kid or a self-obsessed, ego-maniacal, power-hungry monster.
    You can inspire a kid, and have a kid who keeps lowering his goals.

    I think these statements are as correct as your statements. Kids who are siblings are often remarkably different from each other.
         Obviously, THIS KID is different from 99.9999% or more of other kids. Whether or not he is inherently evil, or is the product of sick people, or was actually acting in some form of self defense, who knows if we’ll ever find out? (By the way, I find the abuse defense difficult to accept in some situations.)
         Here is the interesting question: if the cause of the kid’s killing his father and his father’s friend was the kid’s stepmother’s spanking him, and if he had the intelligence and maturity to actually put off killing anyone until an unacceptable threshold was met, how come he didn’t choose to kill his stepmother?

    Ira (28a423)

  4. 1000 hits?

    Since he started counting that is.

    I’m curious how long ago he decided to start the tally.
    A year?
    A month?
    Was the stepmom the usual hitter, or were the guys involved somehow too?

    I remember plotting to kill people who liked to hit me, but we didn’t keep guns in the house so my junior baseball bat was the weapon of my dreams

    I can’t see the state coming out a winner here. The kid has already probably lost his shot at a decent life, but the best use of state resources would be to try to get the kid some help so the next 70 or so years of his life aren’t a continuation of the nightmare

    SteveG (a87dae)

  5. but the child’s attorney has questioned the admissibility of the confession because no lawyer or parent was present.

    Well, they could always have taken a trip to the morgue…

    Scott Jacobs (90ff96)

  6. I don’t know what you could find to redeem in someone who killed two people at eight years of age. Maybe a very specialized Army unit could make use of him — if they kept him in a cage the rest of the time.

    nk (094d4d)

  7. I tend to agree with your evaluation of his redeeming qualities, but that doesn’t help us decide what to do with him. Even if he’s tried as an adult (and I think that’s unlikely), I can’t see a jury locking him up for the rest of his life. Even a 20-year sentence would mean he’s out at 28 and well-educated in the ways of crime.

    DRJ (b4db3a)

  8. To the extent that he’s capable of forming criminal intent, this is a chilling crime that deserves the death penalty. And to the extent that he’s not capable of forming criminal intent he’s not yet a real human being, just a potential one – and so should still be a candidate for abortion.

    A “wrong’un” like this will never be any good. Send him back to his Maker with a warranty claim.

    Milhouse (89df7f)

  9. DRJ,

    I don’t believe the criminal justice system is in any way equipped to deal with this boy. The juvenile mental health system likely is not either but it’s likely the best we can do.

    nk (094d4d)

  10. My concern is not what caused any of this, how does anyone know whether this kid is outright lying or not?

    What happens if this kid walks, what will that teach him, will he kill again because he gets away with it?

    I know the kid is only 8 years old, but this crime was planned and carried out, if justice is truly blind he should be given the death penalty.

    Recently here in the land of fruits and nuts better known as California a teenager was found wandering around in a horrid condition with shackles around his ankles, now maybe if that teenager wacked his family I could understand.

    This 8 year old kid, not so much.

    ML (14488c)

  11. Something is horribly wrong when an 8 y/o is killing small animals … we all know now that is an indicator of someone who will likely grow up to kill humans.

    So now we have an 8 y/o that skipped the earlier stage (as far as we know) and gone right to human murder.

    Long term detention and psychiatric care is called for. Even if somewhere he is deemed able to be released, his juvie record should never be fully sealed and he should spend the rest of his life monitored akin to high risk sex offenders.

    Depending on the system, juvenile detention may be the best place for this child.

    Darleen (187edc)

  12. These cases always make me think of that old movie, The Bad Seed.

    Be careful.

    Patricia (ee5c9d)

  13. Unfortunately, the juvenile mental health system is the best we can do for this kid. And in St. Louis, that is not saying much.

    What I never understand is how some of these states and jurisdictions can try kids “as an adult.” He’s not an adult. How can we try him “as an adult?”

    Can we try a man “as a woman?” It makes no sense.

    carlitos (e40f11)

  14. If I am ever charged with a crime, I would like to be tried as a Senegalese diplomat with immunity.

    carlitos (e40f11)

  15. # 13. carlitos
    What I never understand is how some of these states and jurisdictions can try kids “as an adult.” He’s not an adult. How can we try him “as an adult?”

    Just because your age lets say 16 years old is below the legal age of what is considered an adult 18, does not negate the fact that a 16 year old knows the difference between right and wrong.

    That is why they are correctly tried as adults.

    A man who commits murder or a woman who does the same do not receive different rights, so
    saying we should try one as the other is absolutely pointless.

    ML (14488c)

  16. They’re creepy and they’re kooky,
    Mysterious and spooky,
    They’re all together ooky,
    The Addams Family.

    Their house is a museum
    Where people come to see ’em
    They really are a scream
    The Addams Family.

    (Neat)
    (Sweet)
    (Petite)

    So get a witches shawl on
    A broomstick you can crawl on
    We’re gonna pay a call on
    The Addams Family.

    Just bringing this up cause Gomez Addams supposedly killed his own parents (accidentally?) when he was only slightly older than this boy.
    Of course he got away with it like this boy looks like he’ll get away with it. So I just come away with the thought about how the driving of depravity downwards that the late Sen. Daniel Moynihan wrote and spoke about, is happening apace.

    eaglewingz08 (c46606)

  17. So….why are we taking at his word an admitted cold-blooded murder and patricide committing human of any age?

    When this first happened, I heard three different people assume that the boy was molested; now, the kid is claiming to have been spanked an outrageous number of times, and folks take him at his word.

    Two presumably innocent men are *dead* at this male’s hands, in a carefully planned act of murder.

    Only thing I can think to add is that when I was growing up, the “age of reason” was 7 or 8– the time when a kid can be assumed to know right from wrong, if they’re going to be able to tell them apart.

    Foxfier (db0f51)

  18. ML

    Just because your age lets say 16 years old is below the legal age of what is considered an adult 18, does not negate the fact that a 16 year old knows the difference between right and wrong.

    That is why they are correctly tried as adults.

    If a 16 year old is not an adult, and you try them as an adult, then you are not ‘correctly’ doing anything. This seems pretty basic to me.

    If my 5-year-old knows the difference between right and wrong, that makes him an adult? Are you high?

    carlitos (ff484a)

  19. Speaking as a former special education teacher, mental illness can indeed be diagnosed well in kids, but ideally through long-term observation and intervention rather than a few one on one evaluations. It would really surprise me (though it’s certainly wouldn’t be unheard of) if this kid’s emotional stress wasn’t either diagnosed or documented in the school system at least. But then, that would be up to the competence of the individual teachers/school/district/parents…

    What an unpleasant situation.


    #18 – Amen, carlitos.

    Tom (44c8db)

  20. Carlitos

    No, today I am not high, I could ask the same of you.

    Of course it is basic to you, because you refuse to look at the mental capacity of the perpetrator, so it fits so nicely in your pigeonhole.

    I would ask if you are really that ignorant which is a rhetorical question.

    ML (14488c)

  21. ML, let’s ratchet down the language. You tell me that a 16 year old who “knows right from wrong” is an adult.

    If a 9 year old knows right from wrong, is he an adult? If not, at what age does a child achieve virtual ‘adult’ status by virtue of knowing right from wrong?

    carlitos (ff484a)

  22. carlitos

    I would say yes a nine year old should pay the same price for the same crime that an adult would pay. If justice is truly blind then age is non factor.

    I would say each case is different there is not one age that can be set because all kids mature at different rates, so the mentality of the child must be taken into account.

    And if it can be determined that this child in question knew this act was wrong, then the punishment should be the same. I don’t say that light-heartedly it is sad when anyone has to die, letting this child get away with this crime is the easy thing to do but I often find the easy thing is not the correct thing.

    Do you realize that if an adult commits a crime it has to be determined whether the adult knows the difference between right and wrong before they can be put on trial?

    So knowing the difference between right and wrong is what our entire justice system is based upon, it makes no difference what the age of the accused is.

    ML (14488c)

  23. The facts suggest this boy planned the murders yet I am not convinced that he understood the finality of his acts. In this day/age of video games where you can kill/be killed, all it takes is a “Replay the level?” to start over… I really don’t think an eight year can correctly comprehend death without having some actual experience with it, such as death of a friend, family member, pet, etc. Until that happens, I don’t think a child will ever understand that dead people can’t come back…

    After puberty, kids begin taking on more adult attitudes so the State can correctly make a decision to try a (16) year old as an adult based on the crime and the motive. But there is no way that a child of eight could really understand the consequences of his actions. It is a very sad case…

    GoDaddy (6ed79d)

  24. #23-
    If someone has been hunting multiple times, is familiar with guns and their use, and can’t figure out that dead does not have a reset level– they are dangerous and will not get better.

    I’ve met 16 year olds who, because they had no pets, hadn’t been hunting, and had young, small families had never lost anyone– THEY still realized that there wasn’t a “replay” setting on human life.
    This, without plotting out the methodical murder of their father and their father’s friend.

    Foxfier (db0f51)

  25. We have learned that six year old kids can and do commit suicide. A homicidal eight year old is not at all different. Unlike suicidal tots the boy apparently had what he considered grounds for his action. He was being abused. He took action to end it. I can see this as the right and proper thing to do.

    “But he murdered people.”

    He killed his oppressors. He took matters into his own hands, and by doing so he denied Authority Authority’s self granted role in such matters. The child did what Authority says Authority alone has the right to do.

    People outside the family knew what was going on. People don’t get killing mad overnight folks. Little boys don’t get killing mad unless they are extremely disturbed, or they are pushed extremely hard. If either is the case, you never leave a child in that sort of situation. Certain agencies, certain people within those agencies, are complicit in those deaths because they wouldn’t take action to end the abuse.

    Some in this thread have wondered about an eight year old boy remembering how often he had been struck or spanked. A disturbed little boy, a little boy with a neurological disorder or condition could, and would. Mental illness does not start with adolescence, it starts much earlier. Mental illness becomes undeniable with the emotional and hormonal upset of puberty, but puberty starts years before a boy’s first wet dream, or a girl’s first period.

    You ask, “How could he do such a thing?”

    I have to ask, “How did we let it go so far? Where we when a child, possibly disturbed, was being abused by his parents and guardians? Where was Authority before the boy took matters into his own hands?

    If you want Authority to take care of everything, first be sure that Authority can take care of everything, and is willing to take care of everything. If Authority cannot or will not do as it said it would do, then neither you or Authority has any right to bitch when somebody does what Authority does not.

    A law that is not enforced is no better than no law at all. A law that is written to keep you from doing the right thing is worse.

    Alan Kellogg (e4d258)

  26. ML – so if the wages of sin is death, then a three-year-old can be put to death if said three-year-old knows “right from wrong.” Our criminal justice system moves slowly enough that said three-year-old will be evaluated when he is 6, 7, 10, 16 years old, so he’ll have plenty of time to learn right from wrong to the satisfaction of the court. In jail.

    Question – Why do they try kids “as adults” and not “as someone who knows right from wrong?” Are prosecutors scared to tell us the truth – that they are treating children as adults?

    carlitos (ff484a)

  27. This case IS tough.

    Getting inside this 8 year old’s head will take some time, but it must be done. A child does not plan and execute what he did without having been repleatedly and harshly abused. As has been previously opined, nobody else would stop it, so he did.

    After figuring out what is contained inside, appropriate measures may then be taken to protect the rest of us.

    Gabby (1566d8)


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