Published January 13, 2015
The youngest Kentucky (search) child to be charged with murder in decades likely will receive counseling and therapy in a setting away from a state juvenile jail, experts say. The 7-year-old boy is charged with killing his mother's boyfriend on June 27.
Under state law, he is too young to be tried as an adult or sentenced to a juvenile facility but could be placed in specialized foster care or a private psychiatric hospital.
The boy's case will hinge on whether he had the mental capacity to know the difference between right and wrong and whether he is competent to make decisions about his case, experts say.
"There is a long-standing case law in Kentucky that a 7-year-old doesn't have the mental capacity to form intent," Rebecca DiLoretto, a lawyer with the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy (search), told The Courier-Journal of Louisville.
State law recognizes what is called an "infancy defense" for accused juveniles between ages 7 and 14. It assumes that children can't be held responsible for a crime unless the prosecution can prove otherwise.
The 7-year-old is the youngest Kentucky child in at least 35 years to be charged with murder, state officials and juvenile-justice experts say.
Police declined to release a motive for the fatal stabbing of Robert E. Sanders (search), who had been living with the boy's mother, Teresa Sanders, in Hickman in far western Kentucky. Police allege that the boy stabbed the man while he slept and that the boy's 4-year-old brother was watching. Robert and Teresa Sanders are not related.
Paducah public defender Chris McNeill said he has interviewed the boy. Asked if the youngster understood why he was jailed, McNeill said, "That's the million-dollar question."
He declined to elaborate.
Officials have not disclosed the next hearing date for the 7-year-old. He had been held in a secure detention facility in Paducah and was segregated from older juveniles, but state officials now refuse to disclose his whereabouts, citing confidentiality laws.
Department of Juvenile Justice spokesman John Hodgkin said the agency initially acknowledged the boy's detention after it was made public but no longer will comment.
He said the boy is the youngest of 227 juveniles in the department's custody.
For the case to be decided in juvenile court, the boy must have the ability to participate rationally in his defense and to make such important decisions as whether to testify, said Pete Schuler, chief juvenile defender in Jefferson County.
"Because of his age, it makes things pretty difficult," Schuler said. "I can't think of a 7-year-old to be found competent."
Sharon McCully of Utah, president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, said the youngster's case should focus on treatment, not punishment.
"There can't possibly be a feeling that a 7-year-old couldn't be rehabilitated," she said. "The big issue is going to be why would a 7-year-old even be capable of engaging in that level of violence. What has happened to him or around him in his life that could even create that kind of violent reaction?"
Schuler said that even if the youngster is convicted or found responsible, placement in foster or group homes could be a problem because of his age and the violent nature of the crime. Many foster parents would lack the training to deal with someone like that, he said.
But David Richart, executive director of the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families at Spalding University and an expert in Kentucky juvenile law, said the child likely would receive therapeutic foster care under specialized supervision. Foster parents in the program receive special training and have ready access to professional help.
"Looking back in 35 years of intensive records, I cannot find a kid this young who has done this," Richart said.
Meanwhile, Fulton County Attorney Rick Major has dropped a charge of complicity to murder against Teresa Sanders. Instead, she was charged with felony criminal abuse of her 4-year-old son and endangering the welfare of both boys, a misdemeanor. Conviction of criminal abuse carries up to five years in prison.
At a hearing Tuesday, Fulton County District Judge Hunter Whitesell sent the charge of criminal abuse to a grand jury.