The Big Read: When kids turn into killers

By Benedict Brook

British child murderer Jon Venables, who along with Robert Thompson, killed two-year-old Jamie Bulger in 1993. Photo / Getty
British child murderer Jon Venables, who along with Robert Thompson, killed two-year-old Jamie Bulger in 1993. Photo / Getty

Under any circumstances it was a senseless crime. A brawl at a railway station in the early hours that led to the death of a man.

But what was even more shocking was that of the four people arrested for the murder of a 26-year-old in Perth last week, one was aged just 11.

At an age when the most pressing thing on a kid's mind is usually how to get through the last year of primary school, how does a young boy, in the middle of the night, allegedly find himself mixed up in a clash that left a man stabbed and bleeding to death on a pavement?

On Tuesday, the 11-year-old, who was arrested on Friday, fronted up to Perth Children's Court, via video link from the Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre following the incident that took place at the city's Elizabeth Quay transport interchange early on the morning of January 27. The court heard the boy, who cannot be named, intends to apply for bail.

The child, who it's thought is the youngest ever person in the state to be accused of murder, was joined by his father who at one point leaned over to gently brush his son's face.

Right from wrong

It's estimated about 5 per cent of Australia's approximately 240 murders a year are carried out by people under the age of 18.

Someone as young as 11 accused of committing such a crime is rare but not unheard of. Just last week, an 11-year-old in the United States was found guilty of murder after he shot an 8-year-old girl who refused to show him her puppy.

If the boy accused of the murder in Perth had been just a little younger, he couldn't have been charged, said Matthew Willis, an expert in juvenile crime at the Australian Institute of Criminology, the national research and knowledge centre on crime and justice.

"The age of criminal responsibility kicks in at 10," Willis told news.com.au. "Between 10 and 13 there's a presumption that the young person doesn't fully know right from wrong and hasn't developed an understanding of the consequences but that's a presumption that can be tested in court.

Robert Thompson, who along with Jon Venables, killed two-year-old Jamie Bulger in 1993. Photo / Getty
Robert Thompson, who along with Jon Venables, killed two-year-old Jamie Bulger in 1993. Photo / Getty

"Below 10, you can't be held criminally responsible."

What leads a child to kill is complex, said Mr Willis, but, more often than not, a poor upbringing has a big role to play.

"You're looking at young people [whose lives] might be dominated by family violence and drug use and you've got situations where kids are being abused themselves and there are strong links between psychological and sexual abuse and [then] violent behaviour from younger people," he said.

"That's not the kind of environment where you go to bed early, get a good night's sleep and hop up and go to school. They're not functional environments that support kids getting the normal things kids need to learn and participate in the social environment. And that's before you factor in things like fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and cognitive deficits that come from that or mental health and trauma issues which prevent young people from getting an education."

'Does that make sense?'

Robert Kinscherff, a clinical psychologist and senior associate at the US' National Centre for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, said children that kill usually fall into one of three categories.

Speaking in 2014, to newspaper the Gazette, Mr Kinscherff said about 90 per cent of culprits were severely abused or had witnessed abuse such as between their parents; up to 5 per cent presented with mental health issues and 4 per cent had a long history of anti-social behaviour.

Dealing with young people who are accused of violent crimes presents an array of challenges distinct from the adult court system.

At Tuesday's hearing, Children's Court president Denis Reynolds asked the boy, small for his 11 years, if he knew what bail would mean.

"If you don't get bail, you would remain in Banksia Hill," Judge Reynolds said, before setting a hearing for February 17. "Everyone will get their say and in the end I will make a decision on whether I will grant you bail."

When Judge Reynolds asked "Does that make sense to you?" the boy nodded and said: "Yeah," reported the Australian.

Bad decisions

Deakin University clinical psychologist Professor Andrew Day said criminal behaviour was "deeply rooted" in the background of the young offender and punishment, as well as rehabilitation, needed to take this into account.

"Serious offenders, such as those committing serious assaults and violent sexual crimes, can benefit from treatment that focuses on the causes of the behaviour, on the assumptions, attitudes and environment that triggers offending," he wrote in a 2013 paper for South Australia's Office of the Guardian for Children and Young People.

Rehabilitation should place an emphasis on how young people think about their behaviour and manage difficult emotions. "Increased punishment will not work, and may increase offending in some circumstances," said Prof Day.

Mr Willis said many people walked away from earlier criminal tendencies. "Young people are more likely to do things impulsively, around thrill seeking and influenced by peers. Stupid, reckless things, they'll make bad decisions but a lot of times those things and those kind of influences dissipate," he said. "They'll get to court and have to deal with the consequences which makes it not so much fun anymore."

Five of the most shocking killings by kids

Mary Bell, 11, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of two young boys in 1968. Photo / Getty
Mary Bell, 11, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of two young boys in 1968. Photo / Getty

Brian Howe and Martin Brown, killed by an 11-year-old

Mary Bell was 11 when she was sentenced to life in prison for the 1968 deaths of two boys, aged just 3 and 4, in Newcastle, UK.

Bell is said to have killed the boys, "solely for the pleasure and excitement of killing", reported the BBC.

The body of Brown, 4, was found dead in a derelict house with 3-year-old Howe's remains located on waste ground near his home two months later. Both boys had been strangled.

Bell was released after 12 years and later wrote a book where she recounted the abuse she suffered as a child from her sex worker mother and her clients.

McKayla Dyer, killed by an 11-year-old

The 8-year-old, from White Pine, Tennessee, was killed by a boy only three years her senior last October.

Benjamin Tiller came to Dyer's home and asked to see her new puppies. After she refused, the 11-year-old, who was familiar with firearms and had gone hunting with his father and grandfather, found a shotgun in his home and shot the girl in the chest.

Last week, Tiller was sentenced to juvenile detention until his 19th birthday.

"Mr Tiller is in desperate need of help, and our society has a great need for Mr Tiller to receive it," said Judge Dennis Roach. "A child who commits first-degree murder cannot be willy-nilly turned loose into society."

A surveillance camera shows the abduction of two-year-old James Bulger. Photo / Getty
A surveillance camera shows the abduction of two-year-old James Bulger. Photo / Getty

James Bulger, killed by two 10-year-olds

Perhaps one of the most famous murders by children was that of James Bulger who was killed in 1993, aged just 2, by 10-year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables.

Playing truant from school, Thompson and Venables, from Merseyside in northwest England, were hanging around a Liverpool shopping centre when they abducted James and took him on a walk around the area witnessed by dozens of people. Despite the fact he was crying, most passers-by were convinced by the boys' protestations he was their younger brother. Eventually, they took him to a railway embankment where he was tortured and beaten to death.

The pair were released after eight year's detention, given new identities and relocated away from Merseyside. In 2010, Venables was sent back to prison for violating the terms of his release but was set free in 2013.

Rick and Janet Sweet, killed by a 17-year-old

Isaiah Sweet murdered his grandparents in 2012. Rick, 55, and Janet, 62, who were Sweet's guardians, were shot to death during the Mother's Day weekend in Manchester, Iowa.

Sweet said he had considered a number of ways to kill the couple, including poisoning his grandfather's beer or beating him to death with a bat but decided shooting them would cause the least pain.

Following the killing, he fled and went to a number of parties before surrendering to police.

Despite being a juvenile at the time of the killing, in 2014, Sweet was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Kenzie Marie Houk, killed by an 11-year-old

Ms Houk was eight months pregnant when she was shot in the back of the head in 2009 while sleeping in her home in New Beaver, Pennsylvania. The assault on the 26-year-old killed both her and her unborn child. Her soon to-be stepson Jordan Brown was reportedly jealous that the new baby might be given his room. After the killing Brown boarded a bus and went to school.

After initially being trialled as an adult, in 2012 Brown was sentenced to a juvenile detention centre until he turned 21. An attempt to force a retrial last year failed and Brown remains behind bars.

-news.com.au

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