CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Friday, November 21, 2008

Experts: Interrogation of boy, 8, 'out of bounds'

The third-grader's legs dangle at times from an overstuffed chair as he answers the questions of two female police officers. His manner and voice are casual, even helpful, but his words are shocking.

And so, legal analysts say, were the methods police used to obtain them.

By the time the boy was finished talking, say police in St. Johns, Arizona, he'd confessed to a premeditated double murder.

The 8-year-old is charged in juvenile court with killing his father, Vincent Romero, 29, along with Tim Romans, 39, a man who rented a room in Romero's home. Police have said the boy confessed to shooting the men. He has not entered a plea.

He will be allowed to leave a juvenile jail for 48 hours to spend Thanksgiving with his mother, a judge ruled Wednesday.

The furlough will start at noon November 26 and end at noon on November 28, Apache County court administrator Betty Smith told CNN.

Legal analysts who spoke with CNN were united in their opinion that the police questioning was improper and that any incriminating statements the boy made shouldn't stand up in court.

A review of the tapes shows that the boy's demeanor was more suitable for a session of show-and-tell than for a soul-baring confession as he describes the carnage he saw inside his home. He does not appear to be depressed, scared or sorrowful. Video Watch police interrogate the boy » [Mark Godsey]

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The current case of the AZ 8-year-old seems to be getting a lot of attention. I published a piece about these kinds of case last summer; here is the intro:

Criminal homicide is our most serious crime, and those who commit criminal homicide receive our most severe criminal sentences, up to and including the death penalty. In addition to the severity of the crime of homicide, however, the individual culpability of the offender is also a factor in determining the sentence. In some instances, this culpability factor has resulted in entire classes of offenders being excluded from the maximum criminal sentence – the death penalty. Even more sweeping, some groups of offenders, such as the legally insane, have been excluded from any criminal liability at all. This article probes the logic of adding another group to this list.

Our preliminary inquiry is whether preadolescent children should be categorically ineligible for criminal conviction or delinquency adjudication for homicide offenses. This article only begins to lay the groundwork for a rational discussion of such an inquiry. These cases exist is the darkest corners of our legal systems, including criminal justice, juvenile justice and child welfare. The first objective of this inquiry, therefore, must be drag them out of the shadows and to expose what appears to be going on. The article does reach some tentative conclusions, but its primary value is to begin the inquiry and not to close the book on the issue.
The line between childhood and adolescence is drawn here between ages twelve and thirteen, both to simplify the analysis and to comport with general assumptions of developmental psychology. The beginning of this age range in this analysis is age seven. This tender age is intended to parallel long-established norms from the common law infancy defense and subsequent statutory provisions which provide a rebuttable presumption of criminal incapacity for persons age seven to fourteen. Even much younger children have been known to commit homicide, but their cases simply do not enter the legal system and almost never are made public.

Children ages seven to twelve interact with many areas of American law, as is reflected in now-common law school courses on “children and the law.” However, this article narrows the scope to just one facet of American criminal law. Our arena is homicide law and procedure, cases which typically put maximum stress on the criminal justice system and the community in which the homicide occurred. Therefore, we must identify the unique legal issues that arise when homicide offenders are ages seven to twelve at the times of their homicides. This survey of issues will first go through the classic categories of homicide law from murder to manslaughter. Then a few obvious criminal procedure issues (particularly interrogation) will be sketched. Finally we will examine some of the juvenile dispositions and criminal sentences that might flow from children being adjudicated or convicted of homicide. The overarching goal of this article is to probe critical points of substantive and procedural criminal and juvenile law to see if we can find cases of these homicidal preteens. But first, we should recognize our vast ignorance as to how many cases actually occur.

Victor Streib, "Precious Killers: Justice for Homicidal Preteens," 28 CHILDREN'S LEGAL RIGHTS JOURNAL 33 (July 2008)

Hope this sheds a little more light on the topuic.

Vic Streib

Posted by: Vic Streib | Jan 6, 2009 5:17:36 AM

These are the facts as media have stated: An eight-year old in St. John’s Arizona has been charged with murdering his father (premeditated!) and another man in his house with a rifle, after he “confessed” to two police interrogators who questioned him with NO ONE else present. (Apache County Sheriff’s Commander, Matrese Avila and St. Johns Police Detective Debbie Neckel) He had recently been taught to hunt. The men’s bodies were found in two separate locations in the house. The prosecutor, Criss Candelaria, is asking to charge the child as an adult! The judge has confined the child to juvenile detention facility, but is letting him out for 48 hrs for Thanksgiving with conditions (no video games? no knives or guns within reach? etc.) The police have him in SHACKLES and handcuffs. The Judge, Michael Roca, is approving this nonsense!!!

The police, the prosecutor, and the judge should be charged with child abuse. The FBI should be called in to take over and investigate this felony violation of civil rights under color of law. This is beyond an outrage and flies far beyond the twilight zone. The child should be immediately released to his mother.

A five year old believes a body is a bag of skin containing blood. A six to seven year old has no concept of death. They are just starting to understand this means the person is not coming back home. They think the person is sleeping.

All of us know that five year olds have no concept of time - “is it time yet!” An eight year old thinks a body is a bag of skin with bones randomly placed in it.

Children this age are good mimics and repeat what they hear adults say and what is said on TV but they don’t know what they are saying or what the words really mean. They mimic TV and the line between fantasy (what they see on TV) and reality is blurry for them. That’s why they believe so much in boogey men under the bed and in closets.

My son was five and I was called by a baby sitter in panic when she told me that he “knew everything about sex” so some one must be abusing him or telling him everything. The sitter often watched soap operas during the day and they show couples in bed in their bedrooms under the blankets with lights out. The word “sex” is used but not explained. I later found out the sitter would tell the kids to go away from the TV and play in a stern voice whenever bedroom scenes came on. She told the kids they shouldn’t watch because there was “sex.” The subconscious message was bedroom scenes were “bad.”

At dinner I had a casual playful conversation with my son and worked in the word “sex” by saying - “someone told me the word sex today - it sounds bad”. My son said that the sitter didn’t want him to say the word because it was “bad”. I asked him what it meant. He said: “Its when you shut off the lights and tickle each other under the covers.” Then he had a big giggle and ate his pie.

To get even with the sitter for scolding him about being naughty my son used what he knew would press her button. Even a two year old learns to manipulate before he understands what he is doing! He told her: “I know what you do with uncle Joe under the covers.” Uncle Joe and Aunt Carol let my son sleep over to play with their dog, when I am out of town or there is a special event like a baseball game my brother and son like to watch together (my son lost his father so interactions with my brother were important). Aunt Carol, the sitter, thought this meant adult sex and had a cow. My son only knew that Auntie thought the activities under the cover were “bad”. He didn’t know what those activities were - so he imagined them - tickles.

I think this is a case similar to the Ryan Harris murder in Chicago where two little boys were charged after false confessions and an atrocious interview and later exonerated when the DNA matched an adult.

I am a pediatrician and the interview was atrocious. If you want to put words in a child’s mouth and manipulate them into confessing to something they didn’t do, all the techniques are illustrated on this video - be nice start out with facts and then move to theoreticals and abstract concepts which you lead on - imply what you want - voila! - you get a confession! Children LOVE to please.

The biggest mistake is that children DO NOT understand the abstract at this age (death, murder, life, love, suffering). Abstract is beyond their grasp. Consequences are beyond their grasp unless they are short term. Premeditation for more than a short time is beyond their grasp and cannot involve the abstract.

The child was learning hunting from his father. Perhaps his father taught him to be humane and put a wounded animal out of its misery because it was “suffering”. The child then was taught to equate “suffering” with the sight of blood. The child could have been equating blood with being wounded and talking about putting the men out of their misery by shooting them, even if the child did not shoot them. Was he talking in the concrete or the abstract; past, present, or future? You can’t take what he said literally!

Words at this age may not connect with actions. They may be used as if in reality but in actuality the child is discribing fantasy, or mixing up past actions with present (shooting a wounded squirral v seeing his dad covered with blood). They don’t communicate precisely. Actions don’t connect with results very well. They are just learning these concepts.

Children are NOT little adults! Shame on everyone who thinks that this interview has ANY inculpatory evidence whatsoever. The child should not be in juvenile jail. He should be home with his mommy.

For the press to perpetuate this myth that the boy shot or murdered his father and the border is obscene. How in tarnations could an eight-year old surprise and overpower two adults in different parts of the house who are familiar with guns, aim perfectly, and kill them? Are they all nuts! The murderer is by now long gone! It is NOT alright to use a defenseless, naive, sweet eight-year old as a scape goat and headliner! They are all barabaric and then defame his deceased father with baseless allegations of child abuse!

The press should be ashamed. Perhaps they should study Edward R. Murrow and learn about ethics.

Posted by: Dr Linda Shelton | Jan 6, 2009 5:19:37 AM

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