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Very young killers create quandary for legal system

Graphic August 28, 1998
Web posted at: 10:16 p.m. EDT (0216 GMT)

From Correspondent Don Knapp

SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- When a 6-year-old Richmond, California, boy beat up a baby, many people were outraged -- but others were just as outraged to learn that he would be prosecuted for attempted murder.

John Burris, the child's attorney, says the legal system simply isn't geared to handle serious crime by very young kids.

"I had to get on the floor and play and try to communicate and try to bring his level of understanding to a level of something he could relate to," said Burris.

Competency exams ordered for boys charged in Chicago murder

Burris says it is unlikely any child under 10 who is accused of a crime would meet the legal definition of competency, which includes knowing right from wrong, understanding the nature of court proceedings and being able to assist in his own defense.

The boy in Richmond, for instance, "did not understand murder and what death was ... and that death was a permanent situation," Burris said.

"We never got to the third question, which is fundamentally important; that is, did he understand his constitutional rights?" he said.

John Burris

But Harold Jewett, who prosecuted the boy, defends his decision to take the boy to court.

"(He) invaded, basically, another person's house and mercilessly beat an infant," he said. "And we have a responsibility in the interest of public safety to do something about that."

In the end, the boy was placed in a care home, with his case reviewed every six months.

In Antioch, California, an 11-year-old pulled the trigger of a hunting rifle, killing his 13-year-old neighbor. His attorney, Bill Gagen, says the first problem was gaining his confidence.

Bill Gagen

"The problem sometimes is (that) by the time the attorney gets involved, the child has already been reinterviewed repeatedly by the police, has found out after the fact that maybe what he told the police got misinterpreted ... and now an attorney with a suit comes in, and he trusts that person?" Gagen said.

The 11-year-old could remain in prison until he's 25.

One prominent forensic psychologist says the crimes of children are rarely like the crimes of adults, and, therefore, the legal system is not the answer.

"In adults who commit serious and heinous crimes, we see some psychopaths who are evil people with evil intent and actually enjoy a degree of pleasure from committing serious crimes," says Dr. Edward Hyman. "We don't see this in children. Children very rarely are evil or bad."

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