Nailed next to an air-conditioning vent, the California state flag hangs next to a banner with a thick black swastika transposed over the traditional stars and stripes. Emblazoned on it are the initials "NSM," the acronym for the National Socialist Movement. Nazis. A group known in the area for protesting Latino day-laborer sites with megaphones and hanging Nazi flags outside of a local synagogue.
Jeffrey Hall, 32, is asleep on a sofa underneath the flags. His second wife, 26-year-old Krista McCary, with whom he had been arguing, is asleep in the master bedroom upstairs. All five of their young children are asleep — except for one. At 4 a.m. that morning of May 1, 2011, 10-year-old Joseph, the eldest, silently paces down the carpeted staircase with a fully loaded Rossi .357 magnum revolver in his small hands. Joseph walks barefoot across the cream-colored floor tiles, still sticky with boot prints from yesterday's meetup of regional NSM members. He sidesteps the empty Budweiser bottles scattered around the sofa and stands two feet away from his sleeping father. Joseph pulls the revolver's hammer back, aims below his father's ear, and fires. The Southwestern Regional Director of the National Socialist Movement's brains are blown out by his 4-foot son.
The wall-shaking boom from the magnum load jars Krista awake, but she is slow getting to her feet. When she reaches the living room, she sees her husband motionless on the sofa, blood streaming from a dark hole on the side of his shaved head. Joseph reemerges from his bedroom to where he had retreated with the gun, walks halfway down the stairs, and stops.
"I shot Dad," Joseph says flatly.
"Why?" she asks.
Joseph does not answer as Krista rushes to make a screeching 911 call. The emergency operator can hear Joseph's 9-year-old sister loudly sobbing in the background.
Hours after Joseph was arrested for killing his father, he would tell police he didn't think he would be "in trouble" because of similar circumstances depicted on the television show Criminal Minds. "A bad father did something to his kids and the kid did the exact thing I did — he shot him," Joseph would say. "He told the truth and wasn't arrested and the cops believed him. He wasn't in trouble or anything. I thought maybe the exact same thing would happen to me."
Since 1976, fewer than three dozen children under the age of 12 have been convicted of murdering a parent. The vast majority of children who commit parricide are over the age of 16; of the cases since 1976, 75% have been instances of boys killing their father. Before Joseph, the most recent incident occurred in 2008, when an 8-year-old boy in Arizona shot his father and his father's roommate at point-blank range, reloaded his gun, then shot them again.
Children who kill a parent typically fall into three groups, according to Kathleen M. Heide, Ph.D., a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida. One is severely mentally ill children who typically do not go to trial because they are considered unfit to stand trial. The second, a favorite of the tabloids, is the dangerously antisocial child. The last group, the one Joseph's attorney would argue he belonged to, is that of a severely abused child who is pushed beyond all limits and cannot see another way out.
"Over time, the violence in the home escalates, and these individuals become increasingly stressed," Heide has said. "They kill the abusive parent because they are terrified that they or other family members will be seriously harmed or killed."
There's the case of an 8-year-old boy from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. The boy came upon his father beating his mother. He stabbed his father in the back with an eight-inch kitchen knife. The boy was cleared of wrongdoing because the murder was deemed "justifiable."
Both sides agree on the substantive facts: Joseph killed his father while he slept by discharging a firearm into his head. What Joseph's fate rests on is whether the young boy knew right from wrong when he pulled the trigger. Not that he was insane — but rather if, at the moment of the shooting, he thought it was the right thing to do to kill an abusive father who was threatening more violence against the family.
At the beginning of the trial last October, Joseph's defense team argued that Joseph had been systematically abused — physically, emotionally, and possibly sexually — leaving him incapable of grasping concepts like right vs. wrong, empathy, and death. "This is an all-American story about child abuse," Joseph's juvenile public defender, Matt Hardy, said in his opening remarks. "What are we to expect from the brain of an abused 10-year-old?"
The prosecution insisted that Jeffrey did not abuse Joseph. Though Child Protective Services investigated the Hall family 23 times, no abuse could ever be substantiated; they argued that Joseph's horrific act of violence was "inevitable" because of Joseph's long-documented violent behavior. Joseph's own grandmother, a retired schoolteacher, said in a television interview that she knew her 10-year-old grandson was capable of murder; she just thought "it would happen later."
The prosecution claimed that Jeffrey, in spite of his political beliefs, was a family man, a loving father who repeatedly tried to get help for his severely disturbed son. And while the defense argued that the young boy had been conditioned with the notion that violence was an appropriate response to conflict, the prosecutor discounted Jeffrey's Nazi beliefs and activities as immaterial to the murder.
On Jan. 14, 2013, Judge Jean P. Leonard ruled for the prosecution and found Joseph guilty of murder in the second degree. He will be sentenced this week. In light of his conviction, the law now sees Joseph as a murderer legally responsible for the crime he committed.
But his conviction raises more harrowing moral questions that are not easily answered in or outside of a courtroom: What drives a 10-year-old to murder? Does Joseph bear less of the blame if he was physically abused? What if he was not abused but just neglected? What of the other thousands of children who have case files, the ones who are ritually tortured by their caretakers but do not kill? Is the only difference between them and Joseph the easy access to firearms? Or was Joseph condemned before he was even born, marinating inside a womb basted with methamphetamines and heroin?
Even if he is not considered psychotic, could the act of murder by a 10-year-old be anything other than a sign of some sort of mental illness? Or was he simply a bad seed predestined to burst into blood like his grandmother predicted?
And this is to say nothing of Jeffrey Hall himself, the man who, hours before his murder, sat on the carpeted steps of his home, reading excerpts from Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf to 30 other National Socialist Movement militants as Joseph and his younger sisters drifted in and out of the room. In the end, what real individual responsibility can be assigned to any child forced to lead the life imposed on Joseph? What chance of a normal life did he ever have?
Indeed, if a court of law has fatefully determined Joseph's legal responsibility in this murder, who determines the greater failures of family and society that made him one? No adult in Joseph's life — nobody in his family, no teacher, no school administrator, no counselor, no social worker, no neighbor — had the compassion or practical foresight or moral courage to extricate Joseph from his toxic influences, including the ones inside his head.
Beyond the judicial interpretations, then, looms the much greater question of societal responsibility. At a moment when the national dialogue is dominated by the issue of gun violence and mental health, why was everybody MIA on the case of Joseph Hall as he was maturing into a 10-year-old murderer?
A stone-cold addict, Jeffrey's biological mother Leticia reportedly sucked up booze and smoked heroin and methamphetamines throughout her pregnancy with Joseph. Within three months of Joseph's birth in 2000, Child Protective Services (CPS) launched an investigation into his care. The couple had brought Joseph to the hospital for an eye infection. An argument erupted between the two in the hospital, and Jeffrey shoved Leticia against a wall while she cradled the infant, a hospital worker reported. With no visible marks on Joseph, the couple retained custody of their son.
Days later, Jeffrey and Leticia filed for divorce, and Leticia was granted temporary custody of Joseph. However, they continued to see each other, and in 2001, Jeffrey and Leticia had another child, Joseph's younger sister, whom we will identify as "Cindy."
CPS launched three more investigations for general neglect and for Leticia's association with drug users. Sometime in 2002, Joseph, then 2, was seen wandering around the streets of his mother's subdivision, alone, in the wee hours of the morning.
In 2003, things start to get really grim: Leticia shacks up with a new boyfriend, Wesley, and gives birth to twins. The twins are diagnosed with "failure to thrive" (malnutrition, growth deficiency, persistent vomiting or diarrhea), a syndrome that often afflicts infants who are abused or neglected by their caretaker. Joseph tells his grandmother and father that Wesley has been touching both him and Cindy inappropriately, according to CPS records, although no sexual abuse was ever substantiated.
Another CPS report from when Joseph was 3 indicates that he was found with a swollen lip and that Cindy, then 2, was wearing a tube top, body glitter, nail polish, and makeup. CPS investigated Leticia's house and found broken windows, maggots crawling inside soiled diapers, and spoiled food in the kitchen. CPS substantiated that Leticia and Wesley have been emotionally abusing Joseph and Cindy, and Jeffrey is granted full custody.
Joseph and Cindy continue to have visits with Leticia and Wesley until Joseph, now 4, tells his father that Leticia touched his penis and Wesley put his penis in Joseph's mouth. At Jeffrey's behest, CPS launches yet another investigation. Leticia and Wesley vanish. Social workers make calls and visit their homes, but the two have skipped town. Leticia disappears from Joseph's life entirely for the next six years.
Now a first-grader with dishwater-blond hair, a pronounced lisp, and a hyperactive personality, Joseph, according to school reports, is unmanageable. He lashes out at teachers, screams for no reason in the middle of class, runs out of the classroom, jumps on desks, and freely uses profanity. He threatens other students. He kicks his teachers. Joseph's inability to do basic schoolwork qualifies him for special-needs services provided by the school. A few times a week, an adult aide sits with Joseph during class to keep him calm and on task. An individualized education plan is developed for him. The plan is abandoned within a year after the school kicks Joseph out for ongoing violent behavior. All this according to school reports submitted into trial evidence.
By second grade, Joseph's behavior grows even more volatile. When asked to stop poking other students with a pencil, he grabs a phone and tries to choke his teacher with the cord. At home Joseph set two fires to a trash can, according to legal documents. His stepmother, Krista, saw him try to hurt his younger siblings. In 2009, CPS visited the Hall household once again after Joseph came to school with a welt on his eyebrow. Joseph told the social worker that Krista tied his hands and feet together with rope and tripped him down a flight of stairs for going outside when she told him not to.
By his 10th birthday, Joseph had been out kicked out of nine schools. Most children Joseph's age would be preparing to start their first year as a sixth-grader; Joseph was barely reading at a fourth-grade level. (Officials at Riverside Unified School District psychological and special education services refused to return BuzzFeed's multiple requests for interviews.) By 2010, Joseph was enrolled in home school, where his stepmother would be responsible for giving Joseph up to four hours of instruction a day.
Meanwhile, his father, who had joined the Nazi movement two years earlier, assumed different educational responsibilities.
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