RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Just 10 when he was arrested for killing his neo-Nazi father, the small, blond child told police he pulled the gun from a low-lying closet shelf and aimed it at the man’s ear while he slept in the family’s California home.
Now the boy is standing trial for murdering 32-year-old Jeff Hall in a rare case that, if he’s held responsible for the death, could make him the youngest person currently in the custody of California’s corrections department.
Prosecutors want a judge in Riverside to find that the now-12-year-old child murdered Hall — a regional leader of the National Socialist Movement who headed rallies at a synagogue and day labor site — and keep him locked up as long as possible, citing a history of violent behavior including choking a teacher with a telephone cord.
“In reality, sometimes kids — just like all of us — do things because they want to, and he decided, as he put it, it was time to end the father-son thing,” said Michael Soccio, chief deputy district attorney. “This child started at 5 years old being expelled from school for violence. … His violence started way before his dad ever joined any Nazi party.”
The boy’s public defender, Matthew Hardy, did not immediately return calls for comment.
Hardy told the New York Times his client has neurological and psychological problems and was exposed to neo-Nazi “conditioning” at home.
“He’s been conditioned to violence,” Hardy told the newspaper. “You have to ask yourself: Did this kid really know that this act was wrong based on all those things?”
Opening statements are expected to begin on Tuesday in the two-week trial of the boy, who is not being charged as an adult. The Associated Press is not identifying him because of his age.
Hall, who said he believed in a white breakaway nation, ran for a seat on the local water board in 2010 in a move that disturbed many residents in the recession-battered suburbs southeast of Los Angeles. The day before his death, he held a meeting of the neo-Nazi group at his home.
Hall had previously taken the boy — his eldest of five children — on a U.S.-Mexico border patrol trip and showed him how to use a gun, according to papers filed by police against the boy’s stepmother alleging child endangerment and criminal storage of a gun.
Last year, the boy told investigators he went downstairs and shot his father before returning upstairs and hiding the gun under his bed, according to court documents. He told authorities he thought his father was going to leave his stepmother, and he didn’t want the family to split up, Soccio said.
The boy’s stepmother told authorities that Hall had hit, kicked and yelled at his son for being too loud or getting in the way. Hall and the boy’s biological mother had previously slugged through a divorce and custody dispute in which each had accused the other of child abuse.
Kathleen M. Heide, a professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa who wrote “Why Kids Kill Parents,” said children 10 and under rarely kill their parents and that only 16 such cases were documented between 1996 and 2007. Heide also said parenting and home life would undoubtedly play a role in the case.
“It would be inaccurate to say who the child’s parents are is superfluous,” she said. “That is going to have an effect on how the child grows up, on the values that child learns, on problem solving abilities, so all of that is relevant.”
If a judge finds the boy murdered Hall, he could be held in state custody until he is 23 years old, said Bill Sessa, spokesman for California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The state currently houses fewer than 900 juveniles. “We don’t have anybody that young,” Sessa said. “We have had 12-year-olds in the past, but it’s rare.”