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November 12, 2008

How would we assess a self-defense claim if raised by the 8-year-old Arizona killer?

I mentioned in class the stunning case out of Arizona involving an 8-year-old boy who killed his father and his father's friend.  Since the 8-year-old's basic guilt does not seem to be in dispute, this real case provides an effective setting for us to consider a variety of possible defenses.  This new article from ABC News provides some background on this new case out of Arizona and also describes a notable old case in which a young killer escaped prosecution for killing his dad:

Investigators are still piecing together exactly what took place in an eastern Arizona home, where an 8-year-old boy allegedly shot and killed his father and another man, systematically reloading a rifle and firing at close range. Details from the St. Johns crime scene are scant, and with a court-imposed gag order, little new information is likely to come out unless the boy is tried for the two counts of murder on which he has been charged.

Police initially suspected the boy had been physically or sexually abused, but before the gag order was imposed Monday, investigators said they had found no evidence of trauma. "That's what makes this so troubling," Roy Melnick, chief of police in St. Johns, told the New York Times Tuesday.

Experts familiar with parental murders by young children, but not involved in this case, said abuse is almost always a factor in such crimes.

According to FBI statistics, there were 62 cases between 1976 and 2005 in which children, aged 7 or 8 were arrested on murder charges.  Of those, parents were the victims in just two cases. "The number of homicides committed by children under 11 is infinitesimal.  These are very rare events," said Paul Mones, the only lawyer in the country whose clients consist exclusively of children accused of killing their parents.

"The vast majority of parricides -- the murder of a parent -- committed by minors involve physical abuse and generally involve teenagers.  Seventy-five percent of such murders involve boys who kill their fathers and 15 percent involve boys who kill their mothers," said Mones, who has defended hundreds of minors in 25 years of practice, though none younger than 10.

The most recent previous case of an 8-year-old killing his parent occurred in August 1990, when a Pennsylvania boy found his father beating his mother.  The boy repeatedly plunged an 8-inch kitchen knife into the back of his father William Jones, 59.  A coroner's jury cleared the boy in the stabbing after authorities urged a finding of justifiable homicide.

Psychologists said that besides abuse, mental illness or even simple feelings of frustration could set off a child and lead him to kill.  "We don't yet know what was going on in that house, so it is hard to know exactly why this child reacted the way he did," said Naftali Berrill, a forensic psychologist who specializes in juvenile perpetrators.  "Was he molested? Was he being beaten? Did he shoot his father because his father frustrated him, because he wouldn't let him play a video game?" Berrill asked.

November 12, 2008 in Notable real cases | Permalink

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