ST. JOHNS, Ariz. – A 9-year-old eastern Arizona boy accused of shooting his father and another man to death pleaded guilty Thursday to a single count of negligent homicide.
Two premeditated murder charges for the deaths of the father and the other man, who rented a room in the family's home, were dropped as part of the plea deal. The boy entered the plea before Apache County Superior Court Judge Michael Roca in St. Johns, sparing the rural community of about 4,000 from what would have been an emotional trial.
The Associated Press is not identifying the boy because of his age.
The plea deal prevents the boy from serving any time in the state juvenile corrections system, but Roca still could sentence him to time in a county facility.
"It's a compromise — no one is really pleased," defense attorney Benjamin Brewer said after the hearing.
The boy's mother objected to the plea deal. Through her lawyer, she told the judge she didn't believe her son was old enough to understand the plea agreement and she was worried that his court-appointed guardian hadn't been able to review the deal.
Apache County Attorney Michael Whiting said he "had a hard time believing" that the guardian wasn't aware of the plea deal, and Roca accepted the plea without addressing the mother's concerns.
Whiting wants the boy to undergo extensive mental evaluations and treatment, an option allowed by the plea agreement.
The plea agreement says any detention will be at the discretion of the court.
The boy will also undergo diagnostic evaluations and mental health examinations when he's 12, 15, and 17. The reviews are intended partly to determine whether the boy will pose any danger in the future.
The document says the boy will have no contact with the victims' families unless someone files a written request with the court and the judge grants it.
The boy also won't be allowed to enroll in any public or private school unless evaluations determine that he doesn't pose a threat to himself or anyone else.
The boy is currently free from custody on furlough. He is due back in court for a pre-sentencing hearing on March 5.
The boy previously pleaded not guilty in the Nov. 5 deaths of his father, 29-year-old Vincent Romero, and 39-year-old Timothy Romans. Police had said the boy, who was 8 at the time, used a .22-caliber rifle to shoot the men as they returned home from work.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys had been negotiating a plea agreement for the past month.
Legal experts said there appeared to be no guidelines on how to deal with the case. No child 8 years old or younger committed homicide in the United States during 2005-2007, according to the latest FBI statistics.
The boy, who has been in and out of juvenile detention since his arrest a day after the shootings, wasn't initially considered a suspect in the case, authorities said.
Romans' wife, however, raised suspicions that the boy might have been involved in the shootings. Tanya Romans told police she heard the boy's voice in the background as she talked with her husband over the phone moments before he was killed.
In an hourlong police interview, the boy admitted firing at least two shots at each of the men after initially saying he did not shoot a gun the night of the killings.
As the interview wrapped up, the boy buried his head in his jacket and said, "I'm going to go to juvie."
Autopsy reports showed Romero was shot four times, and Romans was shot six times.
Authorities have never discussed a possible motive.
But while in custody, the boy told a state Child Protective Services worker that he kept a tally of spankings and vowed his 1,000th would be his last.
The boy told police in the interview that his stepmother had spanked him five times the night before the shootings because he did not bring home some papers from school. Police searched the trash at the family's home for the tally sheet the boy said he ripped up before the shootings, but no such paper was found, authorities said.
Brewer sought the dismissal of the statements, including the police interview, because the boy was questioned without representation from a parent or attorney. Prosecutors agreed not to use the statements unless the boy took the stand at trial and countered them.
But one of two experts who evaluated the boy indicated the boy would not be fit to stand trial, Brewer said in court documents. The complete results of both evaluations have not been released.