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Age, upbringing and neurobiology in juvenile murder cases

A judges gavel rests on top of a desk.
A judges gavel rests on top of a desk.
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In May of 2011, a ten-year-old boy in Riverside shot and killed his father, Jeff Hall. This Wednesday, the trial for the now twelve-year-old ended after closing arguments from both the defense and the prosecution.

The issue here isn’t really whether or not the boy is guilty, as he has admitted to committing the act and said that it was premeditated. The defense also retracted its original defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. Now, the fate of the boy rests in the hands of Judge Jean P. Leonard, who has said she is open to arguments less serious than murder for the juvenile. The law in California is set up so that, if convicted of murder, the boy could be in prison until the age of 23. The prosecution feels this would be a just punishment for the crime of murder, but the defense is pointing to several aspects of the boy’s upbringing as mitigating factors for his decision to kill his father.

For instance, he was raised in a world and home of extreme violence, which lawyers argue played a role in his inability to realize the decision he made was wrong. Furthermore, the act could be seen as a form of self-preservation and defense. Also, the boy’s mother is described as being a drug addict, and it is likely that he was exposed to drugs during her pregnancy, which could have drastic consequences on the boy’s moral and cognitive abilities.

What exactly is the law in California for these types of situations? What makes this one so unique? What are the pros and cons of each side of this case? If you were the judge, how would you rule?


Cyn Yamashiro, Clinical Professor of Law, Loyola Law School; Director, The Center for Juvenile Law and Policy

Deborah S. Miora, clinical psychologist with a specialization in neurodevelopmental issues affecting youth and adults; Associate Professor, California School of Forensic Studies; she is on a juvenile justice panel as an expert witness for the L.A. County Superior Court