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Burden of Proof

Michigan School Shooting: Can A 6-Year-Old Form a Criminal Intent to Kill?

Aired March 1, 2000 - 12:35 p.m. ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's just unreal that children have to go through something like this. It's bad enough that they got, you know, school to deal with and peer pressure, and just being in class on time, and things like that, to have to worry about going to school and possibly being shot.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I would just like to say how very sorry I am about the shooting death of the first- grade student at Buell Elementary School in the Mount Morris community near Flint, Michigan.

I know the prayers of America are with the child's family.

ART BUSCH, PROSECUTOR, GENESEE COUNTY MICHIGAN: There is a presumption that a child 6 years old is not criminally responsible and cannot form the intent to kill, necessary to have a criminal prosecution. Now, that's not to say that those who provided that weapon to that boy or created a circumstance where he could get that weapon might not be held accountable for their gross negligence.


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: A schoolyard confrontation allegedly prompts a first-grader to shoot and kill his classmate. Can a 6-year-old form a criminal intent to kill? And will any adults bear legal responsibility for this elementary school murder?

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

The community of Mount Morris Township, Michigan, is searching for answers today -- answers to why a 6-year-old girl was shot and killed, answers to how her classmate was able to bring a loaded gun to school, and answers to the question, who's responsible?

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: Police and prosecutors in Genesee County hope to provide those answers. One man has been arrested and another is being sought by police in connection with the finding of a gun and drugs in the home of the boy accused of the killing.


BUSCH; Last night I authorized a search warrant for this home on Julius Street. The police went to the home. They did find drugs and they did find a stolen weapon in the home. That was a shotgun, which was loaded. The little boy is out of this home at the present time staying with relatives, both him and his brother are now out of the home.


COSSACK: Joining us today from Detroit is Genesee County Prosecutor Arthur Busch. And also in Detroit, criminal defense attorney William Lansat. In Chicago, we're joined by juvenile justice expert Steven Drizen.

VAN SUSTEREN; Here in Washington, TV's Judge Joe Brown, who sits on the criminal court in Tennessee. And also joining us from Mount Morris Township, Michigan, is CNN Detroit bureau chief Ed Garsten.

Art Busch, let me go to you. You are the Genesee County prosecutor. Yesterday, the young boy was questioned. What was his demeanor and what seemed to be his level of intelligence?

BUSCH: Greta, this young boy told the police what happened and how he got the gun, but the police told me when they finished the interview, he commenced a drawing, he was drawing pictures. It wasn't a real thing for him; that he in no way understood the consequences of what he had done or the magnitude or gravity of it.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did he say why he did it, Art? I assume there is no dispute that he did do it at this point at least?

BUSCH: There is some talk about, you know, that there was this squabble before, but you know kids one day hug each other and the next minute they're fussing with each other. And so it's not really clear why he did this, Greta.

COSSACK: Art, where did he find the gun? In other words, where was the gun in the apartment or the place where he was?

BUSCH: Well, we have now determined that the gun was found in a bedroom, and the door by the way wouldn't close, it was found under some blankets in the bedroom near the bed. It was loaded, and it was in a place that was easily accessible to this young boy.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let's go to Ed Garsten in Michigan.

Ed, what's going on at the school today?

ED GARSTEN, CNN DETROIT BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Greta and Roger, all day long there's been a steady flow of citizens, family members, just people in the community that have come here to Buell Elementary School. You might be able to see behind me, they placed bouquets, stuffed animals, little notes in memory of little Kayla Rowland. We have seen people crying in front of the school, hugging each other. Many of them are going inside, as well, to take advantage of the grief counselors and social workers that have been standing by and waiting to offer any assistance they can.

VAN SUSTEREN: Have any of the children or the parents given a description of the boy that shot -- that did the shooting? I mean, do they describe what kind of kid he is?

GARSTEN: Most of the kids that have described the young man say that he was sort of a troublemaker; that he was sort of irascible; that none of them seems surprised that he would be capable of such a thing.

COSSACK: Ed, what do you know and what did we learn about the home life of this young six-year-old and the kind of environment that he comes from?

GARSTEN: Well, you certainly couldn't call it a family life. He was living in a house with a changing cast of characters that, we're told, to seem to come and go; illegal drugs found in the house. His father is in jail; we understand he is in jail, been in jail since February 20 after violating parole, after being convicted on a burglary charge. So he's had quite an unstable home life, where weapons and drugs seem to be readily available.

VAN SUSTEREN: Arthur Busch, thank you for joining us today from Detroit.

And, up next: Can a six-year-old child form a criminal intent to kill? stay with us.


A 16-year-old boy in Maryland who watched his girlfriend shoot and kill herself as part of an apparent suicide pact is the first person to be charged under that state's assisted suicide law.




CHIEF ERIC KING, MOUNT MORRIS TOWNSHIP POLICE: Let's keep in mind that our witnesses. for the most part, are young underaged children that are approximately six years of age. So, naturally, as you would think, you would get some conflicting stories.


VAN SUSTEREN: Investigators are piecing together an elementary school tragedy, a fatal shooting in a Michigan first-grade classroom. The child suspected in the killing is 6 years old. In January, Nathaniel Abraham was sentenced to a juvenile detention center until his 21 birthday. He was 11 when he shot and killed a man, but tried as an adult. Defense lawyers in his case claim he had the mentality of a 6-year-old.

Judge Joe Brown joins us here in Washington.

Judge, when you talk to a jury and you explain what criminal intent to kill is. How do you explain it?

JUDGE JOE BROWN, TENNESSEE CRIMINAL COURT: Well, basically, what you are getting into is: Does this person appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct? Do they have a full understanding of the value of human life and can they make a rational decision in terms of carrying out some intended action. That's intentional conduct.

The problem with the 6-year-old is is that, at this child-like stage, there is a lack of appreciation of the things that adults take for granted. I tried two capital murder cases in the last six weeks, where the death penalty was sought and we got into that a lot. Add an occasion where at one time I represented the youngest person in the world on death row who was 15 when we got a stay of execution, 27 minutes before they were going to execute him. And that is a difficult thing dealing with a young person and trying to get into exactly what they were doing.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let me interrupt you for --

BROWN: Sometimes there is play and sometimes there is real.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, well, let me interrupt for one second, we are going to back to Gene Randall with news -- Gene.

GENE RANDALL, CNN ANCHOR: More on the shooting story from the Pittsburgh area. We're going to the phone now to Craig Dunhoff, who is at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where we understand at least some of those who are wounded are being treated.

Mr. Dunhoff, can you hear me?


RANDALL: What can you tell us about the victims and their conditions?

DUNHOFF: Well, all the information I have right now is that we do have four of the victims. They are all listed in critical condition right now. I don't have any other information about injuries or anything like that, because they are still being evaluated.

RANDALL: Did you get all of the victims, were there four victims?

DUNHOFF: I'm not exactly sure. You know, as I understand, there is still a lot of activity. So I'm not sure of the total number. RANDALL: Can you tell us the ages, the genders of those victims?

DUNHOFF: Actually I can't. As I said, they're still being evaluated and right now I just don't have that information available.

RANDALL: OK, but bottom line, all four are in critical condition?

DUNHOFF: That is correct; right.

RANDALL: Mr. Dunhoff, thanks very much.

DUNHOFF: You're quite welcome.

Let's get back to BURDEN OF PROOF.

COSSACK: All right, let's go back to William Lansat, a criminal defense attorney who's joining us by phone.

Mr. Lansat, we've heard that charges may be filed against those who were responsible for leaving the gun where this youngster could get a hold of it. What kind of charges would that be, and what would the state have to prove?

WILLIAM LANSAT, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Yes, I think they were talking about a manslaughter charge, where they would have to show some gross negligence. But I do also understand that they are taking some protective action against the parent, or the mother in this case, to bring the child under protective custody under the neglect and abuse laws in the sate of Michigan. And I'd be curious to know if there's ever been any prior protective service history involving this family and what the state has done in that aspect. But they can certainly protect the child if the home is an environment that's unsafe. By reason of criminality, they should get the child into foster care and perhaps look to terminating parental rights in this case.

COSSACK: Well Bill, you're talking about having to prove gross negligence. Art Busch was on earlier and said the bed was under a blanket, apparently under a bed. Is that -- is that gross negligence, to leave a weapon like that?

LANSAT: That -- he made a good point. I think it's going to be very difficult to prove the gross negligence part. He was talking about having an instruction for ordinary negligence. It's not ordinary negligence, it's gross negligence, and those issues are very difficult to prove whether or not that, in fact, rises to the level of gross negligence.

VAN SUSTEREN: Boy, I'll you, Roger, that sounds like gross negligence to me, is to leaving a gun that's not locked up, but of course that would probably be a jury question.

But let's go to Chicago, to Steve Drizin.

Steve, we're following a news story on CNN of a shooting in Pennsylvania. This shooting yesterday was of a child in Michigan. How -- is it -- is it unusual to have children picking up guns and shooting, or is this a bigger problem than we realize?

STEVE DRIZIN, JUVENILE JUSTICE EXPERT: I think these are isolated cases, but I think you have to realize that guns are a powerful magnet for children, and if a gun is available to a child the child's going to pick it up. We don't have guns in our home, we don't even have toy guns in our home and my three-year-old will pick up objects and make them into guns. So this is a situation where there are guns easily accessible to children and they're not childproofed, that we see time and time again, and that's why we're seeing so many tragedies.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, Judge Brown, you know, when I hear Steve talk and I hear that it's gross negligence, and obviously it's a jury determination, but putting a gun -- leaving a gun under a blanket, without any more facts -- I don't have any more facts around this -- around this case -- certainly would not be unreasonable for someone to conclude that's gross negligence.

BROWN: Well, it's going to depend upon the part of the country you're in. There are certain parts of the country, such as where I am right now, in Memphis, where if you get in the rural areas there's a gun on the table, one over the mantle piece or behind the back door and the kids are two, three, four, five, 10 and they don't mess with it. It depends basically upon the exposure of the child. Actually, my father took me out shooting when I was six for the first time, and I think by seven I was a pretty good shot. But it's a thing about what you do in terms of how you train and raise the child. What is negligence in one case, where the child has absolutely no exposure, the home is not a good home is not necessarily going to be gross negligence where there is a different type of environment and a different atmosphere sphere.

COSSACK: Steve Drizin, we seem -- it seems to me that we see almost daily reports of young people and firing weapons. Is there a trend? What is the trend in this area?

DRIZIN: Actually, the trend is positive. Juvenile violence has been going down for the last seven years, and juvenile gun violence has been going down. So, perhaps because of the toll that gun violence is taking on our communities, we're seeing a decrease in the number of kids using guns. But what we are seeing, you know, is increased media coverage of these really extreme, tragic cases, and when kids use guns you often have fatal results, and it's -- it's terrible.

VAN SUSTEREN: Judge, one of the issues that's likely to rise in this case is whether or not there will be some sort of termination of parental rights. Again, it's very early, we don't know any of the facts. But what are the types of instances where judges will grant orders to terminate parental rights?

BROWN: You're going to have to look at the background. Have these things occurred before in this family's history? What kind of environment does a child find itself in? Are there drugs freely available around and about the premises? If you get these type of indecia (ph) of improper home environment, then you have pretty good and pretty solid grounds to proceed for termination of parental rights and then go to see if you can place the child with a more favorable home environment.

COSSACK: Bill Lansat, in Michigan there is a law that would allow the Michigan prosecutor, if he so choose -- chooses, to charge this youngster with a -- with murder.

DRIZIN: Well...

COSSACK: They did it in the 11-year-old Nathaniel Abraham case, why will they not do it now?

LANSAT: ... Roger. Yes, that is an option available to them, but I think the Genesee County prosecutor was very wise. He realized that under the common law and the law as it is that below age seven there is a conclusive presumption that the youngster cannot be held criminally responsible for his acts. I mean, that's a basic common law, it's been in our jurisprudence for several years, centuries, and, you know, that's the problem with the statute in Michigan. They could -- they don't even have any age limit. They could go to age five, they could go to age four.

I mean, you know, this is a six-year-old. He needs help. It's really a neglectful home. He should come under the care of the state vis-a-vis the child protection laws and move to look at where he should be at that point in time. The criminal system, the juvenile system clearly is not where he belongs at this point, makes no sense whatsoever.

COSSACK: You know, Greta, as you pointed out, in the Nathaniel Abraham case, you know, there was evidence that he was retarded and had the mental age of a six-year-old and yet they went ahead and prosecuted him as an adult.

LANSAT: Right. (OFF-MIKE) problem, right.

VAN SUSTEREN: I think, though, that it's, you know, important to point out that justice isn't necessarily even in the sense that, you know, we try to do the best we can with each case that comes before us. Nathaniel Abraham was 11 years old but had the intelligence, apparently, of a six-year-old, like this one. But I don't think anyone has ever said that justice is uniform or even.

But anyway, I get the last word today because that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

For an interactive discussion on the fate of a six-year-old murder suspect, tune in and log on to "TALKBACK LIVE." That's at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time, noon Pacific.

COSSACK: There will be more on this shooting in Pittsburgh, this terrible tragedy later on CNN. Stay with us. And we'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.


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