The Littlest Killers

by 'John Marr'

This April, a six-year-old boy and a pair of his friends, eight-year-old twin brothers, broke into a house in a low-income neighborhood of Richmond, California. Their original goal was to steal a "Big Wheel" type tricycle; once inside, according to police accounts, things turned ugly. Apparently, the trio's ringleader hadn't picked their burglary target at random; he had a grudge against the people who lived there. When he came across a month-old baby boy sleeping in a crib, he spilled the child from the bassinet and beat him with a stick. The infant survived, but suffered two skull fractures and potentially serious brain damage. The accused is currently being evaluated to determine if he is competent to be charged with attempted murder.

This is exactly the sort of scary sensational story that newspapers and television take to town these days: Killers In Our Kindergartens: details at 10. Each story breathlessly informs the shocked public that the boy could very well be the youngest person ever charged with attempted murder. The implication is plain: there is something post-modern about a six-year-old killer.

This case says a lot about America today, but the real message isn't what most people think. Consider the following:

  • A three-year-old boy—barely more than a toddler!—decides he is sick of his playmate, also three. He ties a cord around her throat, wraps the other end around a grindstone axle and turns the handle until the girl strangles. His motive? "I didn't like her anymore."

    The year? 1921.

  • Parents leave their ten-month-old baby in the care of their other two children, aged three and six. Unfortunately, the children quickly tire of listening to the infant cry. They stick the child into a wood-burning stove. The baby's charred remains are found in the firebox several hours later.

    The year? 1932.

  • A seven-year-old boy ends a heated argument with a five-year-old playmate by tying the younger child up, stuffing socks in his mouth, and brutally beating him with a stick. He later bluffs his way through two police interrogations before admitting, in a third session, to hitting the smaller boy a few times. At last word, the victim is in critical condition with cuts, bruises and possible internal injuries.

    The year? 1943.

There is nothing new about very young murderers. They've always been around and they've always been rare. Newspaper coverage to the contrary, primary school playgrounds aren't about to become America's latest killing fields. What sets this case apart is the vehemence of public and official reaction. Really—charging a six-year-old kid with attempted murder? Just what is that supposed to accomplish?

Under traditional British common law, the basis for most American law, children under the age of seven are presumed unable to tell right from wrong and cannot be charged with crimes. Not that the little monsters were getting off scot-free; most of the youngest killers in this century apparently wound up in some sort of hospital or foster home, which is really the point. Even the most hardened law and order advocate would hesitate to slam a cell door shut on a "criminal" who's barely learned to cross the street by himself.

The boy in Richmond isn't the youngest child to do the crime—far from it. But in the current paranoid climate, he may very well wind up being the youngest to do the time.   </end>

title illustration by Wellington

'JOHN MARR' is the editor of Murder Can Be Fun. He lives in San Francisco.