The Politics of Charging a 10 Year Old with Murder

It’s a tragic story: A 10 year old boy and a 12 year old boy are playing. The 10 year old becomes enraged to the point he stabs the 12 year old in the chest, killing him. Family members and neighbors acknowledge the 10 year old has had anger issues and is medicated. His mother seems to be universally acknowledged as a caring and responsive parent, dedicated to addressing these aberrant qualities in her son. But does any of this matter? The boy has been charged with murder.

Was charging the boy with murder the right call? The deputy DA on the case is Victor Barr. He’s a good guy. Smart attorney. Family man, with kids of his own. As a prosecutor, he knows what he’s doing. But the decision to charge this case was not his. It came from the very top. I wish it wasn’t the case, but it is a virtual certainly politics played the most influential role in this decision.

I come to this conclusion for a number of reasons beyond the fact the DA herself is in a political battle for mayor of San Diego, or her well-earned reputation of her personal advancement being the primary motivator for any substantial decision in her office – particularly where the press in involved. This much is a given. Rather, it is the speed at which the decision to charge the boy with murder.

You see, the unique circumstances of this case did not require such a decision be made so hastily. There are potential actions Child Protective Services could take to remand him to a secure environment where he could not hurt others. A psychological hold pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code section 5150 could be used to hold the child in a secure place while getting a more definitive diagnosis of his condition.

In other words, just a little effort could have bought sufficient time to be able to fully investigate this matter to understand whether charging a 10 year old with mental problems with murder is the right call. Murder is a very serious charge with lifelong consequences – even for a juvenile. There is a very particular mental intent required for murder, which is in serious question given the boy’s age and mental history. The boy had to act with malice and aforethought, meaning he acted with the intention to kill the 12 year old and thought about it beforehand. But the boy’s age, mental maturity, and psychological conditions can absolutely affect whether he actually had, or was even capable of having, this requisite mental state. This is complicated stuff, not realistically determined in a few days.

Why not wait and do a thorough inquiry? The San Diego UT ran a story this week regarding the DA’s review of an El Cajon Police Officer shooting . In that case, the DA took 9 months to make the call! And this is not at all unusual. Why take so long? Thorough investigation – unbelievably thorough. (And the thoroughness is largely politically motivated.) In that case, the person who was shot was merely wounded and recovered. In this case, the stakes are higher for all involved. Why the rush, when it is not necessary? Yes, politics.

You see, San Diego has a strong mayor form of government, meaning the mayor actually runs the City. Actually makes operational decisions with potentially profound implications. Having the appearance of being able to be decisive in tough circumstances could play well when jockeying for position as a strong candidate for mayor. Stepping back to run a thorough and complete investigation while social services takes custody of the child, while clearly the more prudent course for all involved, lacks the political impact of striking while this story remains in the spotlight.

It is tragic a 12 year old boy is dead, and that should not be lost in all this. But there is also a 10 year old boy known mental issues whose life hangs in the balance. There has been enough tragedy in this case with the loss of life. Let’s not rush to judgment in perpetuating more tragic losses for the sake of political gain. Slow down and do it right.

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Boy pleads not guilty to murder

By Dana Littlefield

Originally published January 19, 2012 at 9:33 a.m., updated January 19, 2012 at 11:19 a.m.

SAN DIEGO — At times looking uncertain as to what was happening around him, a 10-year-old boy accused of stabbing a 12-year-old to death in East County pleaded not guilty Thursday morning to charges of murder and felony assault.

The boy is accused of killing Ryan Carter, a sixth-grader at Foothills Christian Elementary School in Lakeside, with a kitchen knife Monday outside the 10-year-old’s home in the El Cajon area.

The child sat low in his seat during his brief appearance in Juvenile Court, at times looking up at his lawyer for guidance. When Judge Carolyn Caietti greeted him, the boy raised his hand and waved.

Deputy Public Defender Marian Gaston entered the not guilty plea on his behalf.

“I explained his rights as best I could,” Gaston said.

Following the Probation Department’s recommendation, Caietti ordered the boy to remain held in Juvenile Hall, saying that option was best for his safety and the welfare of the community. A representative from probation told the judge the boy had been following the rules and “participating well” while in custody.

Caietti scheduled a court date for Feb. 23, when the lawyers are expected to discuss the boy’s competency, specifically whether he can understand the proceedings and assist in his own defense. He is expected to undergo a psychological evaluation before the hearing.

As required by state law, the judge asked the boy if he would agree to have his hearing on that date, rather than sooner. The boy spoke to his attorney and shrugged his shoulders before answering “yes.”

The judge noted that it might be difficult to explain factors involving a defendant’s legal right to a speedy trial to a 10-year-old but asked the defense lawyer if she was able to make him understand.

“To the extent possible in this situation,” Gaston answered.

The boy’s mother sat nearly motionless in the courtroom Thursday, several feet behind her son. She maintained a serious and mostly unchanging expression on her face until the end of the hearing when she closed her eyes for several seconds.

Jo Pastore, a deputy public defender, said her office would not make a statement about the case Thursday but would likely speak publicly later.

Although Juvenile Court proceedings in California are usually confidential, state law dictates that judges allow public access to juvenile court hearings when they involve certain charges, including murder and manslaughter.

The 10-year-old is too young to be tried in adult court. Because of his age, authorities will not make his name public, and U-T San Diego is not publishing it.

Prosecutors within the District Attorney’s Office filed the charges Wednesday, two days after Sheriff’s Department authorities took the boy into custody in the stabbing of his friend. Ryan died from a chest wound.

“This is a tragic, tragic case for everyone involved,” said Deputy District Attorney Victor Barr, outside the courthouse.

He declined to discuss the specifics of the case but said in general that defendants who are sentenced in Juvenile Court on murder or other serious charges can be held in a youth facility until age 25.

At that point, the defendant would have to be released because the court loses its jurisdiction.

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