Tuesday, November 11, 2008

8 Year Olds and Mens Rea

Mens Rea, the "guilty mind", isn't often seen in kids this young, which is why caution should be exercised when following this story out of Arizona (and which came up in Juvenile Delinquency today). Before we jump to any conclusions, be leery of the sensationalistic headlines in Big Media, which even the New York Times doesn't seem to be above.

Prosecutors Say Boy Methodically Shot His Father:

An 8-year-old Arizona boy charged with premeditated murder in the deaths of his father and another man shot each victim at least four times with a .22-caliber rifle, methodically stopping and reloading as he killed them, prosecutors said Monday.

Although investigators initially said they thought the boy might have suffered severe physical or sexual trauma, they have found no evidence of abuse, said Roy Melnick, the police chief in St. Johns, Ariz., where the shootings occurred. Psychologists say such abuse is often a factor in the extremely rare instances in which a small child murders a parent.
While the facts of the case revealed so far seem to indicate a child who has committed a very brutal double homicide, criminologists note that this kind of thing is statistically rare and virtually impossible to prove.

Kathleen M. Heide, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida, said the odds of such killings “are so infinitesimal, it’s really hard to even comprehend.”

From 1976 to 2005, there were 62 cases in the United States in which a 7- or 8-year-old was arrested on murder charges, said Dr. Heide, who analyzed F.B.I. data. Only two of those cases involved a child killing a parent. Children younger than 7 who commit killings are not charged in most states.

In cases in which a child kills a parent, the child is typically a teenager and usually acts for one of three reasons, psychologists say. Most often, the child has suffered years of physical or sexual abuse. Others kill because of severe mental illness. And some have extreme antisocial or psychopathic tendencies — a child who is used to getting his way and kills out of anger.

“The wrinkle here,” Dr. Heide said, “is that this boy is so young, it could possibly be immaturity and impulsivity.” In children as young as 8, parts of the brain that weigh decisions and consequences are so underdeveloped that a child might not understand the finality of death.
I would add fantasy and role-playing to immaturity and impulsivity as well. The kid could have been "playing" Pokemon or Ben 10, for all we know, and decided to use his father's shotgun for kicks.

Again, in the media's never-ending desire to tell us "what this story means," caution should be used. If we're not careful, we'll have politicians on television decrying the new "Elementary School-Age Superpredator" and calling for executing 8 year olds by the end of the week.

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