[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.