A chilling juvenile case in New Mexico is unearthing tough questions about how to prosecute children who are accused of committing the most heinous crimes imaginable.
On Aug. 27, 2009, Belen, New Mexico, police officers responded to a 911 call made by a 10-year-old boy claiming to have shot his father. At the scene, the boy told responding officers that he had just shot his father in the back of the head with a 20-gauge shotgun because he was punishing the boy too severely. The father still had a pulse when police arrived at the scene, and he was transported to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, where he later died from his wounds.
Four years later, jury selection in the boy's first-degree murder trial is set to begin Monday in a Valencia County, New Mexico, courtroom.
The trial has been tied up in appeals, motions and evidentiary hearings.
"He is the youngest child in the history of New Mexico to be charged with first-degree murder," said the boy's defense attorney, William J. Cooley. Cooley has taken the case pro bono. "In 26 years, this is the saddest case I have ever seen. There are so many victims here. I mean my client, my client's mother. Of course, the deceased and his family, everyone is a victim."
The boy, now 14, has pleaded not guilty. Cooley says he will argue to the jurors that they can't convict the child because he wasn't old enough to understand his actions, and he will present medical evidence to back up his claim. The boy's defense will also include reports from Child Protective Services that describe alleged abuse committed by the father.
"There were lots of reports the child was abused and that will all come out at trial. I am not at liberty to say much more about that," Cooley said.
The definitive -- and perhaps the most chilling -- account of the shooting comes from the perspective of the boy's 6-year-old sister, who witnessed the incident, according to a police report. The girl told police her dad was sitting at the computer near her when a family dispute over a video game descended into chaos.
"[The girl] said that her dad was mad at [the boy] because he was grounded and was not supposed to play with the X-Box or the computer -- and he was playing the X-Box," reads the police report. After being yelled at, the boy "went into Dad's bedroom to set up a trap."
The boy pulled out a shotgun and blasted his father, whose body fell out of his chair before hitting the ground, according to the police report. He still had the computer mouse in his hand, according to the girl's account.
"The girl said that after [the boy] shot her dad, [the boy] said that he was glad that Dad was dead, and [he] would not be grounded anymore."
The girl said she held her dad's hand and kissed it as he laid on the floor with blood running out of his nose and blood bubbles coming out of his mouth. The boy later called police.
The sister will not be able to testify because the court ruled her too young and not competent. Additionally, her statements made to police at the scene will not be admissible at trial, but the six-person jury panel will hear the boy's 911 call, during which he admitted to the killing.
Attorneys involved in the case say whatever happens at trial, there will be no real winners.
"It is an extremely tragic case," says 13th Judicial District Attorney Lemuel Martinez, whose office is prosecuting the case. "This idea of children committing violent acts is not outside their behavioral purview."
HLN is not naming the child because he is being tried in children's court. If convicted, the boy could remain in state custody and rehabilitation programs until the age of 21.
What should happen to the boy?
The boy's defense attorney contends that the prosecution is overstepping by charging the child with premeditated murder.
"He was in fourth grade, ready to go into fifth grade. He was just a baby and they charged him with first-degree murder, which means you premeditated -- you thought it out -- and you acted out killing another person. If you can imagine a fourth-grader, it is just amazing that they would believe that he would have the mental capacity to even do that," Cooley said. "I don't think a fourth-grader -- think about it, a 10-year-old -- has the mental capacity. There's lots of science that reflects that the frontal lobe doesn't develop until the age of 23. There's tons of information out there -- MRIs and lots of scientific evidence out there -- to prove that a fourth-grader cannot formulate the consequences of his actions."
Martinez said that just because the boy is charged with first-degree murder doesn't mean he will be convicted of the crime. The judge has the authority to also charge the boy with lesser included crimes.
"There's a check in the system, and that's the judge. So if we were doing something that was wrong, illegal, unethical, outside the rules, it would have been stopped a long time ago," Martinez said. "Our main goal is to receive some kind of justice for the father that was killed in this case, and also to achieve behavioral change within the child."
"The criminal justice system has to have a way to hold even children accountable to a certain extent. If not incarcerate them, at least to treat them to be sure behavioral change, at least an attempt at behavioral change, is implemented on behalf of the state in order to accomplish that end. I think that is critical no matter which state you are in," said Martinez.