The 12-year-old boy who allegedly shot his neo-Nazi father to death in 2011 sat silently at the defense table Wednesday, wearing a black and grey tracksuit and taking notes as Riverside prosecutors displayed gruesome photos of the crime scene, arguing that he should be locked up for the maximum time the law allows.
Deputy Public Defender Matt Hardy began his closing arguments by projecting a picture on the courtroom wall that showed Jeff Hall and his young son on a sunny day in the backyard of their Riverside home. Next to Hall stood a man dressed in a Ku Klux Klan uniform and Hall’s son appeared to be holding a gun.
That was the backdrop against which Hardy argued for leniency. He painted a picture of an abusive household that he says “conditioned” the now 12-year-old defendant to view violence as appropriate. He also said pre-natal heroin exposure “almost genetically programmed [him] to commit violence.”
Deputy Dist. Atty. Mike Soccio called Hardy’s account “fiction.” He played a slideshow that started with birthdays and a family vacation to the beach and ending with pictures of Hall lying dead on a couch.
Soccio said the boy knew it was wrong to kill—and did it anyway. He said that “more than anyone I’ve seen in my career,” this boy had been able to get away with a history of violence – including an attempt to strangle a teacher with a telephone cord and stabbing classmates with pencils. He portrayed Hall as a loving father who tried his best to discipline a child who could not be managed by his school or relatives.
“It’s time that [he] hear from all of us that what he did is murder,” Soccio said.
Hardy retorted that the boy “never had a chance.” The shooting was the product of a miserable childhood that started with his mother’s drug use and continued with his father’s abuse and the presence of white supremacists in the home, Soccio said.
“This is an all-American case because it’s about the epidemic of child abuse and what happens to children who have to grow up in that atmosphere,” Soccio said after the hearing.
Hall was regional director of a neo-Nazi organization called the National Socialist Movement. But both sides agree the case is not about the NSM or Nazis.
The case is a rarity. Over the past 32 years, there have been only 16 instances of 10-year-olds killing a parent.
The issue of whether minors can tell right from wrong is emerging in courts all over the country.
“Within the last 15 years there’s been a lot of advances in the medical, psychological, psychiatric communities’ ability... to understand how brains develop at a young age and how the brain development itself affects one’s ability to make rational decisions that criminal law in particular is premised upon," said Cyn Yamashiro, executive director of the Loyola Law School’s Center for Juvenile Law and Policy.
Riverside Superior Court Judge Jean Leonard told lawyers this week that she’s struggling with the decision. She will take several days to consider it and rule at 9 am on Monday.
She had asked both the prosecution and the defense to consider the charge the defendant should receive if she finds that he understood the implication of his actions.
The defense asked for voluntary manslaughter while the prosecution said anything less than first-degree murder would be an injustice.
If she chooses the maximum sentence, the 12-year-old boy could be held in a locked juvenile facility until he’s 23. Because of his age, he is not eligible to be tried as an adult.