At what age should a child be culpable for his actions? Twelve year-old Jordan Brown and his family are anxiously awaiting an answer. Jordan is the prime suspect in the 2009 murder of his father's 26 year-old fiancé, Kenzie Houk, who was also 8 months pregnant at the time of her death. Her unborn son died as well.  Jordan was 11 years old when he was arrested for murder. 

Jordan is accused of shooting his soon to be stepmother in the back of her head while she lay sleeping. He then reportedly boarded his school bus and went to school. Kenzie's 4 year-old daughter found her body.

The Huffington Post reported a statement suggesting that Jordan may have planned to murder Kenzie well beforehand. Jason Kraner, Kenzie's brother-in-law is quoted as stating, "There was an issue with jealousy. He told my son stuff." He goes on to imply premeditation, "He actually told my son that he wanted to do that to her."

The prosecutor in the case, John Bongivengo told CNN, "My choice is either to charge him as an adult, or don't charge him," referring to nuances of Pennsylvania law, and goes on to state, "Not charging him at all wasn't feasible."

So what is right in this case? If Jordan, now 12 years old, is charged as an adult, he may spend most of the rest of his life in prison. If the charges are dropped, Jordan is not punished for his actions and the murder of an innocent victim is unavenged. Moreover, what precedent might the latter choice set for future child perpetrators? Still more harrowing, might it set the stage for copycats - would be child murderers hoping to get away with murder?

There are three approaches to examining liability for murder in the U.S: Common Law, Statutory Law and the Model Penal Code. For simplicity sake, consider the common law definition of murder; "the killing of a human being by another human being with malice aforethought." "Malice" is found if the individual possesses any one of the four states of mind:

  • The intention to kill a human being
  • The intention to inflict grievous bodily injury on another
  • An extremely reckless disregard for the value of human life; or
  • The intention to commit a felony during the commission or attempted commission of which a death results.

There is no exclusion for children. Many states have created a distinction for child murders under the pretense that children cannot understand the seriousness of their actions. The question becomes at what age or degree of maturity does a child understand and therefore should be held accountable? The debate surrounding this question seems to resurface whenever a well-publicized murder occurs at the hands of a child. Here are a few well-known cases.

Eric Smith: Eric was only 13 years old when he murdered 4 year-old Derrick Robie in a park in rural Steuben County, New York during the summer of 1993. Eric reportedly led Derrick to the remote location where he murdered the young boy. Eric strangled and sodomized Derrick with a tree limb. He dropped two large rocks on Derrick's head, which were determined to be the young boy's cause of death with contributing asphyxia. Eric was reportedly teased by classmates for his appearance, was a loner and had been diagnosed by a defense psychiatrist with intermittent explosive disorder, a mental disorder causing individuals to act out violently and unpredictably. Eric was tried as an adult and was sentenced to 9 years-to-life in prison. Each of his attempts at parole has been denied.

Mary Bell: Considered one of the first known child aged serial killers, Mary Bell was convicted of killing two boys, one at age 10 and the other after she turned 11 in England in 1968. The details of the murders are graphic. According to an article by Shirley Lynn Scott, psychiatrists at her trial claimed that Mary was a psychopath. Dr. Robert Orton testified that, "I think that this girl must be regarded as suffering from psychopathic personality," demonstrated by "a lack of feeling quality to other humans," and "a liability to act on impulse and without forethought." Her personality disorder was thought to provide her with a "Diminished Responsibility" for the crimes. As a result, Mary was not found guilty of murder, but "Manslaughter because of Diminished Responsibility". Mary's childhood has been described as traumatic. It is claimed that her mother tried to kill her on multiple attempts via drug overdose and may have used her daughter in her own work as a prostitute. Mary was known to torture animals, fight and break into her school. Mary was released from her detention facility at the age of 23.

Lionel Tate: Twelve year-old Lionel Tate killed 6 year-old Tiffany Eunick in his own home while his mother, a Florida highway patrol trooper was upstairs. Lionel was large for his age, reportedly 170 pounds and outweighed young Tiffany by 120 pounds. Tiffany lifeless body was covered in bruises. She sustained 35 injuries, including a ruptured spleen, lacerations, and damage to her rib cage, a fractured skull, brain contusions and a partially detached liver and bruises. Lionel was known as a child with behavioral problems including lying, stealing, assault and 15 suspensions from school. He changed his version of the events leading to Tiffany's death several times. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole at age 14. Lionel served only 3 years when his conviction was overturned by Florida Appeal Court for not having had a mental competency hearing in the course of the trial. Lionel has continued to have run-ins with the law.

Jordan's case, like Eric's, Mary's and Lionel's has caught the attention of the media and, as a result, the public. Yet they are by no means alone. There are several other well-publicized cases and many more still that have not garnered national attention. As a prison psychologist I have contact with many young men who have killed or attempted to kill another person during their teenage year. Some of them were never caught. In speaking with them, most seem to recall having understood the nature of their actions. Who is to say whether or not they would have committed those same actions after the age of 18? After all, some children are very naive. At the same time, maybe others are budding anti-socials.

About the Author

Marisa Mauro

Marisa Mauro, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

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