Why Do Kids Kill?

8-year-old's alleged killing spree raises questions about why children murder.

Nov. 12, 2008— -- Investigators are still piecing together exactly what took place in an eastern Arizona home, where an 8-year-old boy allegedly shot and killed his father and another man, systematically reloading a rifle and firing at close range.

Details from the St. Johns crime scene are scant, and with a court-imposed gag order, little new information is likely to come out unless the boy is tried for the two counts of murder on which he has been charged.

Police initially suspected the boy had been physically or sexually abused, but before the gag order was imposed Monday, investigators said they had found no evidence of trauma.

"That's what makes this so troubling," Roy Melnick, chief of police in St. Johns, told the New York Times Tuesday.

Experts familiar with parental murders by young children, but not involved in this case, said abuse is almost always a factor in such crimes.

According to FBI statistics, there were 62 cases between 1976 and 2005 in which children, aged 7 or 8 were arrested on murder charges. Of those, parents were the victims in just two cases.

"The number of homicides committed by children under 11 is infinitesimal. These are very rare events," said Paul Mones, the only lawyer in the country whose clients consist exclusively of children accused of killing their parents.

"The vast majority of parricides -- the murder of a parent -- committed by minors involve physical abuse and generally involve teenagers. Seventy-five percent of such murders involve boys who kill their fathers and 15 percent involve boys who kill their mothers," said Mones, who has defended hundreds of minors in 25 years of practice, though none younger than 10.

The most recent previous case of an 8-year-old killing his parent occurred in August 1990, when a Pennsylvania boy found his father beating his mother. The boy repeatedly plunged an 8-inch kitchen knife into the back of his father William Jones, 59.

A coroner's jury cleared the boy in the stabbing after authorities urged a finding of justifiable homicide.

Psychologists said that besides abuse, mental illness or even simple feelings of frustration could set off a child and lead him to kill.

"We don't yet know what was going on in that house, so it is hard to know exactly why this child reacted the way he did," said Naftali Berrill, a forensic psychologist who specializes in juvenile perpetrators.

"Was he molested? Was he being beaten? Did he shoot his father because his father frustrated him, because he wouldn't let him play a video game?" Berrill asked.

The idea that a child would be led to murder because his desires were frustrated may seem far fetched, but in 1989 a 10-year-old boy in Houston fatally shot his father and wounded his mother after they would not let him go outside to play.

Much of the hearing that took place in Arizona Monday focused on the psychological evaluation the boy would undergo. His attorney, Benjamin Brewer, sought permission to visit the crime scene -- a two-story home where police say the boy's father, Vincent Romero, a 29-year-old construction worker, and his co-worker and roommate, Timothy Romans, 39, were shot with a .22-caliber rifle Wednesday.

Brewer complained that police questioned the third-grader without representation from a parent or attorney and did not advise him of his rights.

The boy was accompanied in court by his mother. His parents had recently divorced and Romero gained full custody of the boy and remarried.

Romero, investigators said at a press conference over the weekend before the gag order had been issued, was the first of the two victims. He was shot in the head and chest inside the house shortly after 5 p.m.

The boy stopped to reload between shots and before targeting Romans, who was also shot in the head and chest.

The boy was trained in using guns. He and his father reportedly hunted prairie dogs together, and that familiarity with weapons may have played a role in the killings, psychologists said.

"The fact that the boy stopped and reloaded only indicates that he is familiar with shooting. It also suggests he may have been in a pretty dire situation," Berill said. "We'll have to see what comes out later, but it is clear that your average 8-year-old would not have done this."

Mones said a child as young as 8 would likely not be convicted, because he would not have the ability to understand his actions.

"I don't believe an 8-year-old has the ability to commit murder, especially the way we define it under U.S. law," he said. "We know about the way the brain develops in children and adolescents and it simply is not possible that an 8-year-old would know enough about the consequences and finality of his actions to intend to commit murder.

"The courts don't believe that an 8-year-old, whose parents are divorcing, is aware enough that a judge would weigh his preference for custody," Mones said. "A court can't now say that child is aware enough to kill his parent."