Boy in shooting creates legal dilemma

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The scenario: A suspect with a history of violence and mental problems fatally shoots a relative. The solution: a criminal trial if the suspect is an adult, or a juvenile delinquency hearing if the suspect is a teenager.

But what happens when the suspect is in early elementary school?

That's the scenario facing Missouri authorities, who under state law technically could charge a 6-year-old boy as an adult for allegedly killing his grandfather, but in reality find themselves in a judicial quandary.

Court systems are built on an assumption that defendants can understand their actions, the consequences and the basics of a legal proceeding. But 6-year-olds generally lack that ability, say legal and psychological experts. So the recourse is less clear.

"We don't normally deal with this, and we're working our way through it," Winston Rutledge, Cole County's juvenile court administrator, said Monday while authorities were still wrestling with how to handle the case.

The unidentified 6-year-old boy has been in juvenile court cust-ody since allegedly shooting his grandfather, James Zbinden, 59, of Jefferson City, on Friday. Just five days earlier, the boy had been released from a mental health facility, where he had been sent for attacking parents and siblings, sometimes with knives, Cole County Sheriff John Hemeyer said.

If Rutledge's office were to pursue charges comparable to murder or assault, state law would require a hearing on whether to try the boy in adult court, where there is no minimum age limit for such violent crimes.

Rutledge and county prosecutor Bill Tackett both said adult charges are unlikely.

But even if the boy were tried as a juvenile delinquent, the outcome is unclear.

"The problem here is that the boy is so young," said Douglas Abrams, a children and family law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia whose textbook on the topic is used by about 70 law schools around the country. "Once a child is below about the age of 9, it becomes a practical impossibility to prove that the child had intent to commit the crime."

To illustrate the hurdle that juvenile court officials would face, child psychologist Wayne Adams uses the example of a 6-year-old planning moves in checkers or chess. The child can move from one position to the next -- perhaps in response to the other player -- but typically lacks the forethought to develop much of a strategy for future moves.

"A 6-year-old can certainly intend and plan bad things to happen to someone else," said Adams, chairman of the graduate school of clinical psychology at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore. "It would be a question as to whether most 6-year-olds understand death -- its permanency and what's involved."

Abrams suggests that one possible way of handling a violent young child is for the state to take custody by alleging abuse or neglect. A judge then could order appropriate mental health treatment for the child, and potentially for the family, too.

Because of the boy's age, authorities are unable to release many details about the child's past troubles. And even if he were older, medical privacy laws would block authorities from releasing the details of the mental ailments to which the sheriff alluded.

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