A judge in California ruled Monday that the child who shot and killed his white supremacist father is responsible for second degree murder. At the time of the murder the defendant was 10 years old and his victim was 32-year-old Jeff Hall, a regional leader of the National Socialist Movement and an avowed supporter of racial separation.
The case attracted national attention due to the age of the defendant and the political beliefs of Mr. Hall. The defense contended from day one that the young man, who remains unnamed due to his age, was exposed to a violent and abusive environment and truly believed the violence would end with the death of his father.
The prosecution was convinced the boy shot his father over his anger concerning the possibility of his parents divorcing. He was accused of planning the murder in advance and expressing the belief he could get away with the crime by claiming his father had abused him for years.
Riverside Superior Court Judge Jean Leonard heard the case without a jury. The judge ruled on whether or not the boy knew what he was doing was wrong and if there was premeditation in his actions. Judge Leonard took the abusive nature of the boys home and his mother’s use of hard drug’s during pregnancy into consideration, but ultimately ruled the boy planned the killing in advance and was responsible for his actions.
“This was not a complex killing. He thought about the idea and shot his father.”
The case, while tragic, brings up an important issue about the criminal justice system. The United States has a long history of incarcerating young children in adult prisons and executing children. The youngest person executed in the 20th century was George Junius Stinney Jr., who was executed by the state of South Carolina at the age of 14 in 1944. The 90 pound African American child was accused of murdering two Caucasian girls, aged eight and eleven. No witnesses were called for the defense and the trial lasted two and a half hours. The jury took ten minutes to deliberate before it returned with a guilty verdict and pronounced the sentence of death. Only 81 days passed from the time of murders to the execution of this 14 year old child.
The criminal justice system must find a resolution to an important and serious question. Are we as a nation willing to consider children as young as 10 capable of understanding their actions on the same legal standard as adults? Are we willing to sentence children to life long imprisonment or execution for crimes that they may lack the developmental ability to even begin to comprehend? Should a child be treated differently, no matter how serious the crime or should they be treated the same as an adult defendant?
The case heard today in California will not answer these questions. The youngster in the current case has a history of violent behavior dating back to his early childhood and the state is likely to contend he is a danger to other children in a juvenile facility. Now we must wait to find out what punishment the judge will impose on this young man who is now all of 12 years old.