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When a violent crime is inflicted on an innocent child, it is obviously one of the most horrendous things that can happen. There is very little grey area involved in crimes on children. When the criminals themselves are also children, that’s when things get a bit complicated. It throws up issues of culpability and rehabilitation – of whether society is to blame, or if these bad apples are seemingly bred into evil. It inevitably becomes about violence in media, gun control laws, and parental responsibilities. Below we list some of the most heinous crimes committed by children.
Meeting in the early ’50s in Christchurch, New Zealand, teenagers Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme formed an initial bond over the debilitating illnesses they’d both suffered as young children. With their friendship becoming intense and co-dependent, the girls lived in an elaborate fantasy world of their own creation, spending their time acting out stories of the fictional characters they’d constructed in their minds. Fearing their daughters might be in a sexual relationship, both sets of parents attempted to separate the teens, with Hulme’s parents eventually planning to send her to live in South Africa. On June 22, 1954, after being denied permission to go as well, Parker, along with Hulme, lured her mother into the woods, bludgeoning her to death with a half brick in an old stocking. Parker was 16, Hulme was 15.
On August 28, 1954, the girls were convicted of murder. Released after serving five years each, Parker now lives in a small village in Kent, England, under a new name, running a children’s riding school; while it was revealed in 1994 that Hulme was successful historical detective novelist, Anne Perry. After their release in 1959, they never saw each other again.
The harrowing story inspired the Peter Jackson film, Heavenly Creatures, with Parker and Hulme portrayed by Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet respectively.
On the morning of Sunday 18 June 2006, in the remote coal-mining town of Collie, Western Australia, two 16-year-old girls sat chatting. The topic? Murder. After discovering that neither of them would feel guilty if they killed someone, they plotted to do exactly that. The victim would be the “friend” they’d attended a party with the night before, who now lay asleep in the next room, Eliza Jane Davis.
When Eliza entered their room later that morning, the girls pounced. One covered her mouth with a chemical soaked cloth, the other wrapped speaker wire around her neck, while Eliza begged and pleaded for them to stop. After it was done, and her body was buried in the shallow grave they’d dug under the house, the teens reported their friend missing, even joining Eliza’s family in the search. Eventually, they turned themselves in.
Showing no remorse for the crime, the girls told police, “We knew it was wrong, but it didn’t feel wrong at all, it just felt right,” and “We just did it because we felt like it, it is hard to explain.”
In 2007, the teens – whose names have never been released – were sentenced to life in prison with a 15-year non-parole period. During the trial, prosecutor Simon Stone told the court “(They) planned the murder with calmness, consideration, emotional detachment and the desire to have the experience of killing someone.”
The 1993 murder of two-year-old James Bulger sent shockwaves through the world, after he was abducted from a shopping centre in UK town Bootle while his mother was distracted, and calmly led by the hand to nearby train tracks, where he was brutally beaten, mutilated, and murdered – details of which are still being suppressed for the sake of Bulger’s parents.
Even more shocking than the callous, brutal manner of the crime was the tender age of the two murderers, who were both 10 at the time. Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were found guilty of abduction and murder in November, 1993, making them, at the time, the youngest convicted murderers in the history of modern England. The trial, conviction, and sentence – custody until their 18th birthdays – shone a spotlight on the sentencing of young criminals. At what age can someone be held accountable for actions that appear to chime with the evil of adulthood? At the time of the trial, much was made about Thompson’s seeming lack-of-empathy, but it’s Venables who has remained in trouble over the years, being jailed again in 2010 for breaching his parole conditions. Rumours swirled for years that the pair had been given new identities and now live in witness protection in Australia; these were strong enough to force our government to issue a firmly worded denial, but then again, they would hardly advertise that Australia had taken in two infamous murderers, when rejecting so many other asylum seekers over the years.
Christopher Pittman was a deeply troubled young man, whose actions effectively ended his own short life before it had a chance to begin. Pittman had behavioural difficulties as a child, threatening suicide and attempting to run away at one stage, before being sent to live with his grandparents. Pittman was prescribed Paxil for depression, but after one doctor instead switched his medication to Zoloft, it had a profound and disturbing effect on Pittman, causing negative side-effects such as a burning sensation on his body, and what his sister described as “manic” behaviour. The doctor then doubled his dose of Zoloft, side effects of which in children are known to include paranoia, hallucinations, aggression and delusions. One afternoon Pittman got into a fight on the school bus, choking another student. After his grandfather punished him with a paddle-spanking that same evening, Pittman calmly entered their bedroom and shot both his grandparents dead with a shotgun. He set fire to the house using a candle, and fled in his grandfather’s car with guns, their pet dog, and $33.
When he was picked up two counties away, he confessed to the murder, and seemed unrepentant. His later legal defence revolved around the large dose of Zoloft he was placed on, and the well-proven side effects this may cause, but Pittman was still tried as an adult, convicted of murder (later downgraded to manslaughter) and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
On the morning of Monday 29 January, 1979, 16 year old Brenda Spencer stood in her house, across the road from Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California, and opened fire with a .22-calibre semiautomatic rifle, killing the principal and janitor, and injuring 8 children plus a police officer. When asked why she did it, she replied, “I don’t like Mondays.”
Growing up with an unstable family life, Spencer had a history of problematic behaviour and was known in the neighbourhood to use drugs, steal, and hunt birds. In 1978, following an arrest for shooting out the school’s windows with a BB gun, a psychiatric evaluation revealed she suffered depression, and it was recommended she enter a mental hospital for treatment. Her father refused. Instead, for Christmas – just over a month prior to the shooting – he gifted her the weapon, along with 500 rounds of ammunition. Of the gift, Spencer said, “I asked for a radio, he gave me a gun.”
Spencer was tried as an adult, pleading guilty to two counts of murder and assault with a deadly weapon, and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, where she still remains today.
In a 2001 statement, Spencer recognised she could have inspired any one of the school massacres that have occurred since, saying, “with every school shooting, I feel I’m partially responsible. What if they got the idea from what I did?”
Bob Geldof was inspired to write the song I Don’t Like Mondays after hearing of the shooting.
If there is one case on this list that begs sensible reform to US gun laws, it is the 2000 case of young Dedrick Owens, who somehow had access to a .32 calibre handgun despite being only six, and was able to take this to school one sad day without being detected. He pulled out the gun and shot fellow six-year-old Kayla Rolland in the arm, puncturing a major artery and causing her death. Scared, and confused, he fled to the school bathrooms. Owens was unaware of how serious his actions were, even days after the murder.
Owens reportedly stated he shot her because he “didn’t like her, which is the most troubling and depressing case of “monkey see, monkey do” we can recall. Under the law, those under the age of seven aren’t responsible for their own actions, even those that result in death – but his uncle, Jamelle James, certainly was – being charged with manslaughter for allowing Dedrick to have such frighteningly easy access to the deadly firearm, and serving 2.5 years in prison. This remains the youngest-ever school shooting, and was profiled on Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine as such.
English girl Mary Bell’s twin killings in 1968 – set two months apart – started fierce public debates around how to appropriately sentence and rehabilitate young offenders. Mary Bell has since gone on to live a calm, anonymous life, but her early years were marked with terror. Her mother was a prostitute who beat her, attempted to kill her on a number of occasions, and was party to her molestation. Clearly, she was a traumatised child, and her actions were reasoned to be the result of diminished responsibility, as she displayed “classic symptoms of psychopathy” by a court-appointed psychiatrist.
The day before her 11th birthday, Mary Bell strangled a four-year-old child to death in an abandoned house. Two months later she brought a friend along with her to a wasteland area where the pair strangled a three-year-old child. Bell returned to the body some hours later and carved an “M” into the child’s stomach, using scissors to scratch his legs, cut off his hair, and mutilate his penis. Clearly, these were the actions of a severely damaged child.
Bell has showed extreme remorse since, and currently has a lifetime court order protecting her identity, and that of her daughter. Due to the wide public interest in her case, such court orders protecting someone’s identity for life are known as a “Mary Bell Order.”
At a mere 11 and 13 years of age, Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden became responsible for the deadliest middle school shooting in US history, when they opened fire on their teachers and classmates at Westside Middle School in Arkanas, after first pulling the fire alarm to lure them outside. The pair killed four female students and a teacher, injuring 10 others in the process.
Both Johnson and Golden had guns normalised for them at a strikingly early age, with Golden being taught to fire a weapon before starting school, receiving his first gun at age six from his father. Johnson’s mother was a correctional officer who married an inmate at the prison she worked at. The pair clearly glamorised violence: talking of their dream to join the Bloods, bragging of street gangs they belonged to, and frequently speaking of – if not actually smoking – marijuana. Johnson threatened to murder his sixth-grade girlfriend after she dumped him, while Golden was accused of killing a friend’s cat with a BB gun.
Due to their tender ages, both were tried as juveniles and were as such spared the death sentence, instead being held in custody until the age of 21. Unfortunately, both have since become caught up in further firearms offences. This case, and the perceived leniency of the sentences, sparked debate about sentencing for minors who commit clearly premeditated crimes.
– Nathan Jolly
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