ILLINOIS EDITORIAL: Can a 9-year-old commit murder?

Child care experts should answer the question, not prosecutors

A deadly, fast-moving fire ripped through a mobile home east of Peoria in April, hollowing out a family through the loss three children and two adults. The fire left surviving relatives bereaved, traumatized and in some cases, angry. In a development decried by juvenile justice experts, a 9-year-old family member has been charged with arson and five counts of first-degree murder for allegedly setting the blaze.

The dead included the boy’s two half-siblings, a cousin, his mother’s fiance and his great-grandmother. The child’s mother, Katie Alwood, says he suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and ADHD and took medication daily. The state Department of Children and Family Services had 13 previous contacts with the family before the fire. Those contacts dated back to when he would have been an infant, and typically ended with a referral to services, report Angie Leventis Lourgos and Peter Nickeas. The Tribune is not naming the boy because he has been charged as a juvenile.

What was in the mind of this child? Could this 9-year-old – could any child? – form the intent suggested by first-degree murder charges? No child that young has been accused in a mass killing since at least 2006, according to the AP/USA Today/Northeastern University mass murder database, the Associated Press reported.

“Nine-year-olds don’t know … people die and don’t come back to life,” said Gus Kostopoulos, a former prosecutor-turned-juvenile defense lawyer in Chicago. The child’s mother said her son would bring food to a memorial at a tree, thinking his dead siblings would return and eat it.

There’s no question about the horror of the fire at the Timberline Mobile Home Park near the village of Goodfield, about 150 miles southwest of Chicago. “My niece died in my arms. I can still hear them screaming,” said the boy’s mother. Along with the niece, 2-year-old Rose Alwood, the dead included Jason Wall, 34; Wall and Katie Alwood’s children Daemeon Wall, 2, and Ariel Wall, 1; and Alwood’s grandmother, Kathryn Murray, 69.

“Some days it’s easier to breathe than others,” said Rose’s mother, Samantha Alwood, who believes her nephew should be held in juvenile detention, then jailed as adult if he’s convicted.

Understanding of child development has evolved over the past 30 years. It appears clear that a boy that age should not be held to the severe accountability that involves incarceration, even within the juvenile justice system. Charged as a juvenile at age 9, the sternest sentence the child would receive is probation, though judges have broad leeway to prescribe hospitalization or other treatments. A child’s brain doesn’t develop a sense of time and consequences and weighing risk until later in adolescence, said Amanda Moreno, a professor at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school focused on early childhood development. “Even at age 8 or 9, there’s a lot they don’t know about being future-oriented,” Moreno said, including understanding the results their actions can cause.

Time will tell what life holds for this troubled boy, but the severity of murder charges is counterproductive. A heavy dose of stress and trauma now overlays whatever issues he may have already had. Surely counseling awaits and, based on the mother’s description of her son’s mental health, other forms of care.

It should be up to caseworkers and other experts to determine the best course of action. The state’s posture toward him should be one of healing and protection, not punishment – to prevent this boy from spiraling further and to prevent this tragic fire from destroying another life.