As Alton residents try to understand why an 11-year-old boy would shoot two adults — killing a local mother and her husband — the study into very young killers in the U.S. has two dominant themes.
They are very rare and their causes can be multi-dimensional.
State Rep. Mary Beth Walz, D-Bow, wrote the 2014 law that raised from 17 to 18 the age someone must be charged for crimes in adult court.
“There are nationally a few cases but I can’t think of any in New Hampshire where someone that young murdered someone,” Walz said.
“I’ll point out I just used a loaded phrase and we’re a long way from knowing that’s what led to this horrific tragedy in Alton. It’s really hard to draw sweeping conclusions from these crimes because they are so few.”
According to the FBI’s crime statistics in 2017 there were only eight homicides in the country in which the killer was 12 years old or younger.
By contrast, in the same year, there were 405 murders by juveniles ages 13-16.
These tragic tales of young children who become accidental or premeditated killers are difficult to process, much less comprehend.
Dec. 2018, Florissant, Mo.: Maliyah Palmer, 6, died after her 12-year-old brother accidentally shot her in the head while their parents were at a Christmas party, according to police.
September 2018, Deer Lodge, Tenn.: A 12-year-old boy used a rifle to shoot and kill his father, Tommy Durham, 56. Police said the boy was trying to protect his mother’s life while the pair was having an argument. The home had been the scene of frequent calls for domestic violence, according to authorities.
March 2018, Milwaukee, Wis.: Miyanna Jelks, 9, died after her brother, 10 or younger, told police he grabbed a 9 mm handgun she was playing with and it went off. Both parents were criminally charged for neglect and the children told police both weren’t at home at the time of the shooting. The mother, Talisha Lee, has pleaded guilty and will be sentenced next month.
March 2011, Burlington, Colo.: A 12-year-old son made a 911 call and local police ultimately charged him with murdering his parents, Charles and Marilyn Long and severely wounding two siblings. The boy shot his 9-year-old brother and stabbed him in the genital area. His sister was stabbed in the back and neck. Both children survived those injuries, police said.
No minimum age in NH
For now, the boy in Alton has been charged with second-degree murder and attempted murder under juvenile law.
On Saturday, prosecutors said James Eckhert had died of his injuries late Friday.
The charges were announced after prosecutors confirmed his wife, Lizette Eckhert, had died inside their Alton home earlier Friday morning and that her husband at that time was clinging to life in a Portsmouth hospital.
Unlike some states, there is no minimum age in New Hampshire when a child can be tried as an adult. A judge, after considering myriad factors, can decide to certify a child as an adult.
There is, however, a separate state law known as immaturity that states only children 13 years or older can be charged with serious violent crimes as adults including murder, kidnapping, rape down to negligent homicide and robbery.
Some legal experts say this could preclude charging this 11-year-old with murder in and adult court.
“We carefully preserved that right to charge a child of any age for murder and other very violent crimes. This gives the prosecutors maximum discretion to look at every individual case and make the decision that fits the individual facts,” Walz said.
The factors the judge must consider in certifying a juvenile as an adult include the willful nature of the crime, the minor’s criminal history, the threat if any to the community at large and the “sophistication and maturity” of the killer.
“There is no road map; we kept it intentionally general so there would be open-ended flexibility,” Walz said.
State law requires the decision on whether to ask to certify the minor as an adult be made within 21 days after the juvenile charges are first brought.
But Assistant Attorney General Geoffrey Ward pointed out Friday a judge can extend that deadline upon the state’s request for more time to complete its review.
Many advocates for gun control said of the Alton case their first question was how a child this young could get his hands on the gun used to kill one adult and critically wound the other.
Robin Skudlarek of Londonderry is a volunteer with Moms Demand Action, an interest group promoting several gun control measures at the State House this spring.
“Could gun safety in the home have been an issue if an 11-year-old was able to obtain this weapon prior to 7:30 in the morning and use it on two adult residents. How did the child get the gun?” Skudlarek said.
“We don’t know the facts in this case but there’s no denying that there is too much wanton storage of guns in this country.”
Both sides promote gun safety
Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Clegg of Hudson, president of Pro Gun NH, said concern about the gun’s placement in the home may have no bearing on what happened.
“The owner of a firearm is required to keep it safely stored so a child cannot access it. We don’t know where the child actually took the gun from. Was it his dad or mom’s or did he get it elsewhere?” Clegg asked rhetorically.
“Until we know how and where he took the gun it’s difficult to comment decisively.”
Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocate for gun control, sponsors the Be Smart Program, a course to teach parents and children about proper handling of guns in the home.
The group estimates there are 1.7 million living in U.S. homes where guns are loaded and not safely stored.
“Research clearly shows children know where their parents keep their guns even if the parents don’t realize it,” Skudlarek said.
Gun rights advocates dispute claims about the level of unsafe gun storage in America.
They also point out their organizations for decades have offered safety courses for young and old alike.
Clegg agreed that now, more than ever, many young children hooked on video games need to be taught to have respect for guns.
“The actual use makes them realize the video game isn’t as real as they thought,” Clegg said. “They also realize the consequences can’t be replayed until you get it right.”
Dr. Kathleen M. Heide, professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, wrote two acclaimed books on juvenile homicide.
In February 2017, she published for the journal Injury Epidemiology a study of 146 murders by kids younger than 14 from 2005-2012 in 16 states.
Her research concluded those homicides were 1 percent of all murders, 90 percent were done by boys 11-14 and guns were the chosen weapon 60 percent of the time.
Heide found all these murders fell into five categories and only one was when a child killed a relative, which is usually a parent or grandparent.
There were generally three profiles of children who murdered their parents, according to this study.
The child killer was likely either severely abused who killed to stop the abuse, dangerously antisocial who killed to advance his or her own goals or severely mentally ill, Heide wrote.
“It takes a resourceful village to raise a well-adjusted child and some communities are struggling just to survive. It also takes a healthy mind to resist unhealthy influences,” Heide summed up in her study.
“As parents, we won’t always know what our child is thinking and feeling. But we can take our child’s mental health just as seriously as his/her physical health, pay attention to sudden changes in our child’s behavior, stay up to date on the normal range of teen behavior, and use teachers and pediatricians as sounding boards and secondary sources of information.
“And, of course, keep our fingers crossed.”
We know more about the 12-year-old son who killed his parents and wounded two siblings in Burlington, Colo., back in 2011.
He’s Gedeon Long, identified in 2017 after a judge agreed to transfer him to a less secure setting over the opposition of his uncle who had adopted those two wounded siblings.
Long was sentenced to seven years in juvenile detention for the two murders.