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Law and Crime

Rethinking Kids Who Kill

Do crimes committed during adolescence define a person forever?

Key points

  • A resentencing hearing for brothers who killed three showed conflicting recommendations.
  • Neuroscience supports the brothers’ potential for reform, but their future behavior remains unclear.
  • The hearing confirmed the challenge of weighing diverse influences.
Photo by K. Ramsland
Photo by K. Ramsland

The so-called Skinhead Murders shocked the community. Two teen brothers and a cousin had committed a triple homicide. They fled, were arrested, and were sentenced to life in prison. After a federal court decision about juveniles, the brothers had the chance to receive reduced sentences. The question was whether they had changed sufficiently during their nearly three decades in prison to warrant a chance to start over. Mental health experts weighed in.

The Incident

The scene at the Freeman home in Allentown, Pennsylvania, was unthinkable. Everyone who saw the carnage on February 26, 1995 wondered what could have triggered such explosive rage. Dennis Freeman, 54, and his 11-year-old son, Erik, had been battered to death and Brenda, 48, was fatally stabbed. Their two other sons, Bryan and David, were missing. So was their car.

The parents had been devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, raising their three boys to abide by the rules of their beliefs. Tensions began when Bryan and David reached adolescence. They wanted to do things their religion forbade. They’d been in some treatment programs for difficult behavior and had an interest in Neo-Nazi philosophies. They’d also been meeting with a Skinhead group.

Dennis and Brenda tried to discipline them. The boys retaliated by tattooing their foreheads, one with Sieg Heil, the other with Berzerker. The distraught parents cleared the hate paraphernalia from their rooms. The brothers told friends they were going to steal a gun and run away to Florida. They threatened their parents multiple times and bullied their younger brother.

The tension soon reached a breaking point. The cousin, Nelson “Ben” Birdwell, overstayed his welcome one night. Brenda ordered him several times to leave. Bryan, enraged, stabbed Brenda and told the other two they had to help. David and Ben went together to Dennis’s room, where he was sleeping. Ben had a pickax handle and David had an aluminum bat. They struck Dennis repeatedly, then slit his throat. David would later say that Ben had killed Erik.

They fled to a farm in Michigan. Tips assisted to locate them. They all gave confessions, although stories shifted after each heard what the others had said. All three were tried as adults and sentenced to life in prison. Ben, at age 18, was the only legal adult.

Decision and Assessments

Two Supreme Court decisions, Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana, together prohibit automatic life without parole sentences for those under 18, and instead require an individualized sentencing determination. This applied retroactively. The judge would have to decide on whether offenders are incorrigible or beyond reform. This is no easy decision to make about adolescents, even violent ones. There are many factors to consider, some with significant nuances.

Psychologists hired by the defense stated that the brothers had changed and seemed to be genuinely remorseful. Dr. Frank Dattilio had evaluated David two months post-arrest. In the ensuing years, he said, David had made surprising changes from a “block of ice” to a “personable” man who could reflect on what he’d done. “There’s a human being in there,” Dattilio said. He thought that, with treatment, David should be eligible for a sentence reduction. On Bryan’s behalf, psychiatrist Susan Rushing recounted early sexual abuse, suicidal tendencies, substance abuse, and treatment failures that had affected his mental processing at the time of the crime.

Dr. John O’Brien, a psychiatrist for the prosecution, said that both brothers tried to minimize their culpability, suggesting they didn’t accept responsibility. David still harbored a significant amount of anger.

Although the recidivism rate for homicidal teens released on parole in PA was low, the assurance of future prosocial behavior lies in attitudes and resources. As reported in the media, future life plans had little play in the assessments.

On February 19, both were given new sentences, but must serve another 31 years before they're eligible for parole.

The Research

Welner and his colleagues (2022) reviewed research spanning homicide recidivism, life-course-persistent criminality, and psychopathology that have been relevant to risk assessment for juvenile homicide offenders. They dismissed the notion that juvenile offenders grow out of their criminal impulses and examined risk factors in the backgrounds of homicidal juveniles that might persist (e.g., psychopathy, substance abuse, compulsive predation). “To presuppose that such offenders who killed in their adolescence will pacify merely as they age into their twenties is Pollyanna bias that does not account for the various factors accountable in individualized assessment.” These youthful offenders can overcome the risk factors, but treatment initiatives “fall short of providing a formula.”

Surprisingly, Welner’s seemingly comprehensive study fails to acknowledge the work of humanistic psychologist James Garbarino, who has testified in dozens of these resentencing hearings, including for Bryan Freeman. He admits that some irredeemable juvenile killers exist but emphasizes the adolescents’ unique ability for rehabilitation, given the right guidance and resources. He relies on the research about the juvenile brain, finding that two decades in prison is sufficient for maturation. He determined that Bryan was a viable candidate for release.

Still, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Jones v. Mississippi (2021) that the Eighth Amendment does not require finding that a youthful offender is incapable of reform. This decision limited Miller’s scope and ignored arguments from neuroscience that adolescents are inherently less culpable than adults due to immature brain development.

Nevertheless, the question of incorrigibility remains psychologically relevant when fact-finders must decide on letting juvenile killers go free. A lack of response to treatment, the presence of psychopathic features, and an inadequate desire to make prosocial plans are all significant factors.

The Freeman brothers’ past and present behavior isn’t the whole story. They should also have discussed resources in place for supporting themselves and living in a community, along with a plan for behavioral accountability. Past, present, and future behavior all count in such evaluations.


Farris, J. (2024, Feb 16). Testimony in Freeman brothers' murder case reaches final day. WFMZ.…

Garbarino, J. (2018) Miller’s children: Why giving teenage killers a second chance matters for all of us. University of California Press.

Welner, M., DeLisi, M., Baglivio, M. T., Guilmette, T. J., & Knous-Westfall, H. M. (2022). Incorrigibility and the juvenile homicide offender: An ecologically valid integrative review. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 20(1), 22-40.

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