June 11, 2011
In August 2000 in the California desert town of Blythe, three-year-old Damien Stiffler was pillow-smothered to death by his five-year-old cousin and his six-year-old sister. After they pushed the boy down into a mud puddle, he struggled loose and ran. They chased and tackled him. Both girls sat on him, one of them atop a pillow on his face, until he stopped moving. “It was not an accidental death,” said a Riverside County Sheriff. Although the girls said in police interviews that they intended to kill the boy, they were too young to be tried for murder under California law.
In February 2000, a day after six-year-old Kayla Rolland allegedly yelled at six-year-old Dedrick Owens for spitting on her desk, he returned to their Michigan schoolroom and shot her dead in front of their teacher and a class full of students. Despite having apparently spent nearly a day deliberating before he pulled the trigger, Owens’s age exonerated him from murder charges due to what was perceived as an inability to “form intent.” Instead, the murder weapon’s 19-year-old owner, who lived in the same house as Li’l Dedrick, was sentenced to prison for leaving the .32 pistol within the child’s reach.
Amarjeet Sada is known as “India’s youngest serial killer.” He was arrested in 2007—at age eight—for three murders, all of children under a year old. His victims were strangled and bludgeoned to death, and he had attempted to hide their bodies. Since Indian law forbids his imprisonment, he will be detained in a children’s home until reaching adulthood, at which time he will be freed.
In November 2008, an eight-year-old Arizona boy shot his own father and another man dead using a .22-caliber rifle. The boy told investigators that he’d been repeatedly smacked and abused by his father and stepmother. He claimed he’d kept a log of each incident and that “1,000 would be the limit.” He said he shot the two men after his parents had crossed the limit the day before. Although those facts strongly suggest murderous intent, he was only “sentenced” to residential treatment.
Way back in 1929 in the Eastern Kentucky hills, eight-year-old Cecil Van Hoose smacked six-year-old Carl Newton Mahan in the face with a piece of scrap iron. The younger boy went home, grabbed his father’s 12-gauge shotgun, returned to Van Hoose, announced “I’m going to shoot you!,” and sprayed him with buckshot, killing him. Within a week, the six-year-old was put on trial for murder. He was convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in reform school, but the sentence was overturned and Mahan was permitted to return home.
Still, back in those days, children were perceived as being fully capable of intentionally killing someone. These days they aren’t. The intervening years saw a massive societal shift in how much of our behavior is our own fault and how much can be pinned on others.
It all hinges on whether you believe, like most people these days, that children are born good and need to be taught how to act like wild animals…or whether they’re born as wild animals and need to be taught how to act good. The real answer may be some combination of the two. But what’s almost certain is that no one knows for sure.