SPOKANE, Wash. – The effort to prosecute two boys, ages 10 and 11, for allegedly bringing weapons to a Colville school in a plot to kill a classmate is posing legal challenges because the suspects are so young.
The state's criminal justice system presumes that children below the age of 12 do not have the capacity to understand they are planning to commit crimes, Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen said Thursday.
A judge can allow prosecutors to pursue criminal charges in juvenile court for children between the ages of 8 and 12, but only if prosecutors can show the youths understood the difference between right and wrong.
"Is it the kind of thing everyone would know is wrong?" Rasmussen said of the legal burden.
The boys were arrested at Fort Colville Elementary School on Feb. 7 after a fourth-grader saw one playing with a knife on the school bus and told a school employee. The capacity hearing is set for Feb. 20 in Colville, about 75 miles north of Spokane.
If convicted in juvenile court, the boys would likely be incarcerated in a juvenile hall, possibly up to the age of 18, Rasmussen said.
"It gives me no pleasure to prosecute a kid," Rasmussen said.
Such capacity hearings are not exactly rare in the state, but they don't happen frequently, said Pam Loginsky of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys in Olympia.
There are several key issues for the judge to consider, Loginsky said. Did the youths know their plan was wrong? Did they show a desire for secrecy, including admonishing others not to tell? Was there an attempt to intimidate the victim? Had they engaged in similar conduct before?
"Did they understand it was wrong at the time they did it," not just after they were caught? Loginsky added.
The boys remained in custody at a juvenile hall near Spokane on charges of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, tampering with a witness and conspiracy to possess a firearm.
Court documents released this week gave details about the boys' alleged plans on the day they were caught with a knife and gun in school. Colville police officers called to the school began questioning the boys, who admitted the plot and gave details about how they were going to kill a girl in their class and possibly harm a half dozen other students, court documents said.
Authorities discovered the plan when a fourth-grader saw one of the boys playing with a knife aboard a school bus and told a school employee what he'd seen. A search of the 10-year-old's backpack found a knife, a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol and a full ammunition clip, court records showed.
A staff member asked the 10-year-old why he had the gun. The boy said he and the 11-year-old were going to "get" a girl identified in court documents only by initials, according to authorities.
"When asked what he meant by `get' her, (the 10-year-old) responded that he and (the 11-year-old) were going to get (the girl) away from the school and do her in," court records said. The 10-year-old "further stated that the (11-year-old) was going to stab (the girl) with a knife and (the 10-year-old) was supposed to keep everyone away."
Rasmussen said he was thankful that tragedy was averted, even if it means prosecuting the youngest defendants of his career.
"Certainly it is difficult to comprehend 10- and 11-year-olds developing a plan to kill one and possibly other people," Rasmussen said.