Joseph Hall, a 12-year-old boy from Riverside, California, is on trial for murdering his 32-year-old father, Jeff Hall, an unemployed plumber, whilst he was asleep on the couch. Jeff was a regional leader of the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi organization and was accused by his wife during their divorce of abusing his son. Opening statements are to commence on Tuesday, Oct. 31 before Judge Jean Leonard in what is expected to be a two-week trial, without a jury.
Joseph was only ten years old when, in the early hours of May 1, 2011, around 4 a.m. he shot his sleeping father with a snub-nose revolver. As his father lay dying on the couch, the boy then ran upstairs to hide the gun under his bed. He is only being tried as a minor, however, if convicted of murder he could become the youngest person ever to be jailed in the state of California.
“We don’t have anybody that young. We have had 12-year-olds in the past, but it’s rare.” said Bill Sessa, spokesman for California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The day before the killing, Jeff Hall held a meeting for the members of his neo-Nazi group in his home, hanging a Nazi flag in the living room for the occasion. At the meeting, just 12 hours before he would shoot his father dead, Joseph Hall proudly displayed a thin leather belt emblazoned with a silver insignia of the Nazi SS to a guest, saying it was a gift from his father.
“Look what my dad got me,” the boy said shyly, perched on the living room stairs, one of the few quiet spots in a house with five children. This was relayed by a New York Times reporter who was attending the meeting to report on the National Socialist Movement.
The impact that exposure to this philosophy, both in an organised form and by osmosis from everyday interactions with a parental figure, had on a young child’s mental, moral, emotional and psychological development must surely be a key consideration in how Judge Jean Leonard will order Joseph Hall to spend the next significant part of his formative years.
The prosecution are aiming to have Joseph locked away “receiving as much help as possible for as long as possible” which could be until his 25th birthday, though more likely until his 23rd.
They cite a long history of violence, with expulsions from school for violence at the age of five, and an incident where he tried to choke a teacher with a telephone cord.
“In reality, sometimes kids – just like all of us – do things because they want to, and he decided, as he put it, it was time to end the father-son thing,” said Michael Soccio, chief deputy district attorney in Riverside County, California.
“This child started at five-years-old being expelled from school for violence.
” … his violence started way before his dad ever joined any Nazi party.”
“What he did, had it been done by anybody older, there would be no doubt that it was a murder. It’s planned. It’s premeditated. It was carried out in a cold, killing fashion. It is a murder.”
“I’ve had some people say, ‘How can you do that to a little kid?’ ” said Mr. Soccio. “And I ask them, ‘Well, would you like him to come live with you?’ ”
The boy’s future is reliant upon the performance of his public defender, Matthew J. Hardy, whose argument is founded upon the child’s neurological and psychological problems and his exposure to neo-Nazi conditioning at home and parental physical abuse, from a very young age.
“He’s been conditioned to violence,” Hardy told the New York Times. “You have to ask yourself: Did this kid really know that this act was wrong based on all those things?”
California’s penal code states that children under 14 years of age cannot be charged with a crime without clear proof that “they knew its wrongfulness.”
Joseph is the eldest of five children by Jeff Hall who, despite accusations of child abuse from both parties, won custody of Joseph and his sister from his first wife during their divorce.
The child’s father had previously taken the boy to the US-Mexican border and shown him how to use a gun, as part of a border patrol trip, according to documents filed by police in a case against the child’s stepmother, Krista McCary, for child endangerment and the criminal storage of a gun.
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Krista McCary told the authorities that Jeff Hall had hit, kicked and yelled at his son for being too loud or getting in the way.
Joseph was frequently the target of his father’s drunken rages according to court documents and was prone to violent outbursts. He reportedly told police he killed his father to stop this abuse. He also told authorities he thought his father was going to leave his stepmother, and he didn’t want the family to split up, Soccio said.
Amongst this toxic environment of racism, hatred, violence and abuse, many questions arise:
Did Joseph know that what he was doing was wrong? California’s penal code states that children under 14 years of age cannot be charged with a crime without clear proof that “they knew its wrongfulness.”
“He thought what he was doing was right,” said Mr. Hardy. “And while that may be hard for other people to understand, in his mind, in a child’s mind, if he thought it was right, or at least didn’t think it was wrong, then he cannot be held responsible.”
Can profound, passionate racism amount to parental abuse of a child? Can a child who is exposed to such an environment understand the difference between right and wrong, when a key parental figure is such a poor role model in that respect? Can a child who is trapped within such a toxic upbringing be blamed to taking action to end the abuse and find a way out? Does society need to do more to support the innocent from circumstances which are beyond their control?
Had Jeff Hall foreseen the effect that steeping his son in a culture of white supremacy and its obsessions with weapons, racist hate speech and Nazi regalia would have on both his and his son’s lives, would he have done things differently? Or was the red haze of hatred too blinding?