Near my hometown Peoria, Illinois in Goodfield a 9 year old has been charged with 5 counts of murder after intentionally starting a fire. Of the 5 murdered 3 of them were young children. He has also been charged with Arson. A huge uproar in the community about what the punishment for a 9 year old has risen.
First-degree murder charges lodged against a 9-year-old child in a central Illinois mobile home fire that killed five people are a shocking revelation that experts say goes against international recommendations — and the state’s own history of juvenile justice reform.
Chicago-based juvenile defense lawyer Gus Kostopoulos called the charges “extremely uncommon.”
“I don’t remember any cases of a child this young being charged with murder going back 20 years,” Kostopoulos said.
The child will also be charged with two counts of arson and one count of aggravated arson, Woodford County State’s Attorney Greg Minger told the Peoria Journal Star on Tuesday.
The April 6 fire killed a 1-year-old, two 2-year-olds, a 34-year-old man and a 69-year-old woman near the town of Goodfield, about 150 miles southwest of Chicago. The victims died of smoke inhalation.
Woodford County Coroner Tim Ruestman said that the fire was started intentionally, the Star reports.
It’s unclear whether the child, whose gender was not identified, is charged as an adult or a juvenile. If convicted, the child could be placed on probation for at least five years but not beyond the age of 21, Minger told the Star. Therapy and counseling would be likely, but incarceration is not an option, he said.
The fire began shortly after 11 p.m. on a Saturday, according to the Star. By the time firefighters arrived on the scene minutes later, the trailer was engulfed in flames. There were two survivors: Katrina Alwood, 27 at the time, and one of her children.
Alwood lost her fiance, two children, niece and grandmother in the fire.
She shared a news story about the murder charges on her Facebook page Tuesday, writing, “I would appreciate if everyone would stop the hate comments he’s only nine he needs help he’s just a baby so please stop.”
In May, after the fire, Alwood started a GoFundMe page.
“I lost every thing,” she wrote on the page.
“It was a heavy decision,” Minger said. “It’s a tragedy, but at the end of the day it’s charging a very young person with one of the most serious crimes we have.”
No child as young as this one has been accused in a mass killing since at least 2006, according to the AP/USA TODAY/Northeastern University mass murder database, which tracks all U.S. homicides since then in which four or more people were killed, not including the offender.
There are 14 offenders under the age of 18 in the database. The youngest offenders were 15, and there were four of them, involved in: two family shootings, one public shooting and a gang-related attack.
Kostopoulos questioned whether a 9-year-old child could fully understand the effects of their actions.
At that age, they might have difficulty understanding what was happening and forming all of the necessary intent for a murder,” Kostopoulos said.
Betsy Clark, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative in Illinois, highlighted the “extraordinary timing” of this case.
On Tuesday, the United Nations released its first-ever study of children deprived of liberty. The report recommends that no child under the age of 14 should be prosecuted for a crime.
“Documented evidence in the fields of child development and neuroscience indicates that maturity and the capacity for abstract reasoning is still evolving in children age 12 to 13 years due to the fact that their frontal cortex is still developing. Therefore, they are unlikely to understand the impact of their actions or to comprehend criminal proceedings,” the report says.
The report also goes a step further, commending countries that have a higher minimum age for prosecution, such as 15 or 16 years of age.
Clark said 14 is already the minimum age of criminal responsibility in many countries. In Mexico and Canada, the minimum age is 12. In the U.S., many states, like Illinois, have no minimum age.
“These are elementary-school-age children. They don’t belong in any kind of prison or detention. They deserve services and rehabilitation, not punishment,” Clark said.
Clark was in central Illinois Wednesday to host a talk on juvenile justice and tour juvenile detention centers. She said that the new charges are “ironic,” as Illinois was once a global pioneer of juvenile justice. In 1899, Illinois established the first juvenile court in the U.S.
“Illinois was ahead of the world 120 years ago, and now we’re right behind,” Clark said. “It’s really a terribly ironic position.”
Under Illinois law, a suspect younger than 10 cannot be detained, and the minimum age to sentence a minor to juvenile state prison after trial is 13.
In 2017, hundreds of minors under the age of 14 were admitted to juvenile detention in Illinois, including: 32 people ages 10-11, 555 people ages 12-13, and 2,879 people ages 14-15, according to a report from the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission.
A majority of those admitted were African American.
Cases of children charged with murder are rare, Clark said, and charges against them are usually pulled back.
Just last month, a judge dismissed a murder charge against a 9-year-old boy accused of fatally shooting his mother in their southern Michigan home. The judge said the boy was presumed incompetent for trial because he’s not yet 10.USA Today