Earlier this month, an eight-year-old boy in St. Johns, Arizona, was charged as an adult with two counts of premeditated murder after telling police that he shot his father and a male lodger in the family home. He was taken to court in handcuffs for his initial appearance before a judge.
This rare case has attracted media coverage throughout the US, and in Canada and Europe. The brutal murder of a child is an unfortunately common occurrence, and although society is almost universally repelled by such an act -- even hardened prisoners look on child-killers with contempt -- no one is surprised that it happens. But a brutal murder supposedly committed by a child is unusual and shocking, something that simply doesn't happen in a normal world. Some people will tune it out, not wanting to discuss it or think about it. Others will gather as much information as they can, making a thoughtful effort to understand what happened and where blame, if any, should be placed. Still others will apply the same biases with which they view all offenders, refusing to admit any difference between a child and an adult.
The comment boards on internet news sites are filled with posts about the Arizona case from people who know next to nothing about the boy and his family. The judge wisely imposed a gag order on everyone involved, and the few bits of information that came out before the order provide little basis for an assumption of either guilt or innocence. Nevertheless, a lot of people have strong opinions and are eager to share them with the world.
On one site, an Ohio resident’s impassioned plea for help for “this confused and terrified 8-year-old child” is followed by a terse recommendation from a New Jerseyite: “Drop the kid in a Saddam hole. Seal it up. Walk away.”
Many people who have commented on the case are aghast that an eight-year-old knew how to use a gun. The two men were reportedly shot, multiple times each, with a .22 single-action rifle. The shooter had to chamber a round every time the gun was fired. The father was an avid hunter and had taught his small son to use a rifle, but the horrifying image of a little boy deliberately chambering and firing each round is too much for some people to accept. “There is more to this than meets the eye,” a Michigan woman wrote. “Someone else (an adult) had to have done this deed and pinned it on the 8-year-old.”
If the boy shot the men, as he told police he did during intense and aggressive questioning, what explains his behavior? Talk of abuse as a motive began immediately after the shootings. What else could drive a young child to such extreme action? If it turns out the boy was never abused, what are we to think then? Is this well-behaved boy who has never been in trouble before really a bad seed? If he is proved guilty, will we ever know for certain why he picked up a gun and shot his father and a family friend?
Arizona’s criminal laws allow a child this young to be charged and tried as an adult if the prosecutor can convince a judge the defendant is beyond rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system and is competent to understand the charges and assist in his defense. Currently the boy is undergoing a psychiatric evaluation to determine his competence. If he’s declared incompetent to assist in his defense, and the prosecutor still wants to try him as an adult, he can be placed in a psychiatric facility until he becomes competent.
Whatever happens to him, the future doesn’t look promising for the youngest murder defendant in the US. We can speculate about the cause of the murders, but until the whole story comes out we can’t draw any lessons from this tragedy. The aftermath – what happens once a child this young is arrested and charged with premeditated murder – is what we should be thinking about.
Where should he be held until trial? Should he be released in his mother's custody or kept in a cell? If he's convicted, what punishment is suitable for an eight-year-old double murderer? A man from Pennsylvania gave his answer on the internet: “They should seek the death penalty. If they don’t, life in prison, a dark cell, with no light. No human contact, silence.” For good measure, this gentleman added, “And castrate him too.” Others believe the boy needs treatment, not punishment.
What do you think should be done with a child who is charged with murder? Should he be tried an adult? If he’s convicted, where do we put him, and for how long? If he’s ever to be released and live in society again, what can be done to prepare him for that day?