Old enough for murder?
By Gordon Dritschilo
Staff Writer | September 21,2008
Christian Taylor may be the youngest alleged killer charged as an adult in Vermont history.
Police said Taylor, 14, of Wells beat his mother with a flashlight and shot her in the face. He pleaded innocent last month to second degree murder.
Teenage killers are not unheard of in Vermont. Aaron Congdon of Chittenden pleaded guilty earlier this year to killing his father at the age of 16, and the "Dartmouth killers" Robert Tulloch and James Parker, both of Chelsea, were 17 and 16, respectively, when they murdered a couple in Etna, N.H., in 2001.
Taylor may be the youngest person in Vermont charged with the crime of murder, but he is not, however, the state's youngest alleged killer.
That distinction goes to two boys, a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old, who according to Windsor police, killed a 4-year-old girl in 1937. The unnamed boys were the youngest alleged killers mentioned in a survey of Vermont officials and historians.
The victim was Beverly Ann Page, a New Hampshire girl staying with her aunt in Windsor. The older of the two boys struck her head with a brick and pushed her into Mill Brook, according to published accounts, and then the younger boy held her head under water while the older one jumped up and down on her stomach.
Police said the younger boy confessed, telling the whole story, while the older one remained adamant in his denials.
Accounts of the case in the Rutland Herald's archives do not include its resolution, but describe a petition in May of that year to charge the older boy with "delinquency," calling for him to be turned over to Vermont Department of Public Welfare for mental examination.
The boy's parents declared their intention to fight the petition all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
Even today, Vermont law would not allow the boy to be charged as an adult — the cut-off age is 10 — but prior to the 1980s, Taylor and any other criminal defendant under 16 would have been treated as a juvenile.
The change in the law came following the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl in Essex. One of the two defendants in that case, James Savage, was 15 and could not be charged as an adult. The public outcry prompted a special session of the Legislature to change the law.
Vermont statutes list 12 crimes for which a minor may be tried as an adult. Those are arson causing death, assault and robbery with a dangerous weapon, assault and robbery causing bodily injury, aggravated assault, murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, unlawful restraint, maiming, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault and burglary into an occupied dwelling.
Children between the ages of 10 and 15 cannot be charged as adults with other crimes, but the state can petition to have such a youth declared a "delinquent child."
When a defendant falls within the relevant age and offense categories, the prosecutor has discretion in whether to charge a juvenile as an adult.
"Often, what prosecutors are responding to is ultimately public pressure," said former prosecutor and Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna.
The dilemma, Hanna said, is that when a youth is convicted as a juvenile, he or she can only be held in a juvenile detention facility until the age of 18. After that, the offender is free.
"The down side is when you put a kid in jail, at 14 or 15 years old, for 25 years, those kids are never going to be rehabilitated," she said.
Hanna said cases like Taylor's, in which children allegedly kill their parents, are especially complicated.
"It's really hard to know whether these kids will go on to become violent offenders, or if there was something about the family situation, the family dynamic, that caused them to kill that means they won't be a danger to society," she said.
"Usually, these kids have some sort of mental illness or there's violence in the home and it's self-defense, if not perfect self-defense," Hanna continued. "It's rare, although not unheard of, to have a sane kid plot to kill his parents. It raises a question about whether convicting these kids as adults and sending them away for life is what we want to do as a society."
The Congdon case seems to illustrate Hanna's point, at least if defense claims are taken at face value. Congdon's attorney claimed the youth suffered from multiple mental illnesses, as well as physical and mental abuse.
Very little background information has emerged in Taylor's case. Defense Attorney Brian Marsicovetere would not say if the youth had undergone a psychiatric evaluation or otherwise discuss the case.
Hanna said public pressure applies in less sensational cases, as well.
"In a lot of jurisdictions, there's pressure to charge these kids as adults because people feel these kids are a danger," she said.
Hanna said other states are looking at more progressive approaches. She described a specialized court in one California town that deals only with juveniles in an "early intervention" effort.
Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio said he thinks too many 15- to 17-year-olds are charged as adults.
"The adult system isn't designed to meet the needs of kids that age," he said. "It's designed primarily to deal with punishment and supervision rather than dealing with the developmental needs of the kids. It's not designed to put the kids in a place where they will not re-offend."
In other states, Valerio said, a minor's case begins in juvenile court and can be moved to adult court following a hearing.
"In Vermont, we do it backwards," he said. "We start in adult court and you have an opportunity to have it transferred to juvenile court, but it rarely is. There's plenty of literature about adolescent brain development and why a remedial system would be better for 16- and 17-year-olds."
The law has further evolved since the changed triggered by the Essex case. A "youthful offender" classification provides for a middle-ground between adult and juvenile court.
"It always used to be either/or — either the adult court, which could convict a minor of an adult offense, or juvenile court, which would end at age 18 and the records would never become public," Windsor County State's Attorney Robert Sand said.
The new law allows for a conviction in adult court followed by sentencing in juvenile court, with supervision primarily by juvenile probation officers through the Vermont Department of Children and Family Services.
"If there's a violation, there are sanctions available that would not be available if it was just a juvenile case, such as a return to an adult court for an adult criminal sentence," he said.
Sand was the first prosecutor to make use of the law. In 2005, 15-year-old Brittany S. Woodward of Windsor pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempting to commit an aggravated assault. She received a deferred sentence, but will have her record cleared if she successfully completes her juvenile probation.
Sand would not discuss the Woodward case directly because juvenile proceedings are confidential.
"Generally speaking, the more disposition options that we have, the better," he said. "The youthful offender designation provides an option that can be a useful tool."
Sand said he himself has only used the statute once and that his office had used it perhaps a half-dozen times.
"It sort of buys some time to see, was the offense a youthful aberration or is this going to be a repeat offender for whom a stronger juvenile response needs to be brought to bear," he said. "It's pretty hard with anyone, especially a teenager, to tell at the outset."
Youths charged under the law can also remain under the supervision of the juvenile court until age 19, rather than 18. Dale said a new law scheduled to take effect next year extends that period to age 22.
Elizabeth Maier, assistant professor in the Department of Justice Studies and Sociology at Norwich University, said youth crime in Vermont was relatively rare. She said it could generally be traced back to mental health issues or sociological issues.
"Were they raised in a loving environment or were they abused?" she said. "Did they have friends or were they outcasts? Were they bullied? … Were they dedicated in school? Did they do well? Did they not do well? Were they part of a sports team? Were they Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts?"
Maier said many of these factors are more predictive in hindsight. She described how, after the Columbine High School massacre, the FBI distributed profiles of potential school shooters.
"Pretty much every child in high school fit the profile of a Columbine shooter because they made it so broad," she said.
Other warning signs, Maier said, are more explicit.
"If the child is 7 and mutilating cats in the neighborhood, typically some kind of intervention is sought," she said. "The cop-out is there are evil people in the world. For the most part, there's some sort of socio-psychological explanation as to why they're committing crime."
Maier said Vermont seems well-equipped to deal with youth crime because it has a number of options. She specifically mentioned the court diversion program.
"They're trying a lot of what we call 'restorative justice' ideas, trying to reconnect the offender with the community they're from and get recourses to help them," she said. "It could be as simple as they have a mental illness that hasn't been diagnosed and if we get them the proper medication, the odds they will do something else are greatly reduced."
Contact Gordon Dritschilo at firstname.lastname@example.org.