A 9-year-old Illinois child is facing murder charges for allegedly killing five people — including three babies — in an April house fire, a decision one juvenile justice advocate is calling “simply shocking.”
Woodford County State’s Attorney Greg Minger filed charges Tuesday against an unnamed child in connection to an April house fire in the Timberline Trailer Court in Goodfield, Ill, the Associated Press reports. According to the Peoria Journal Star, Minger said the juvenile faces five counts of first-degree murder, two counts of arson and one count of aggravated arson — which implies that the child was aware people were in the home when he or she started the fire.
Minger and the State’s Attorney office did not respond to multiple request for comment from TIME.
Minger told the Peoria Journal Star that the child will be appointed an attorney and have a bench trial in front of a judge. If convicted, the child faces a maximum of five years probation, but not past the age of 21, according to the AP. Minger also told the AP the child will not face jail time but will likely go through counseling and therapy.
“It was a heavy decision,” Minger told the AP. “It’s a tragedy, but at the end of the day, it’s charging a very young person with one of the most serious crimes we have. But I just think it needs to be done at this point, for finality.”
Woodford County coroner Tim Ruestman confirmed to TIME that the five victims of the house fire included Kathryn Murray, 69; Jason Wall, 34; Rose Alwood, 2; Daemeon Wall, 2; and Ariel Wall, 1. Ruestman says all the victims died as a result of smoke inhalation and their deaths were all ruled homicides. Ruestman tells TIME investigations by the Woodford County Coroner’s Office determined the fire was started intentionally.
Betsy Clarke, founder and President of the Illinois-based Juvenile Justice Initiative, tells TIME that the prosecutors’ decision to charge the 9-year-old in the first place is “shocking,” considering research that suggests kids at that age are not aware of the seriousness of their actions.
“It’s a shocking decision on the part of the prosecutors and it’s out of step with the fundamental international human rights protections for children,” Clarke says. “What’s particularly shocking about it is the charges filed the same week that the first-ever global study on the deprivation of liberty of children was released. I was just at the launch of that study, and the key recommendation in the study is that the minimum age of prosecution be 14 — and the reason for 14 is that all of their brain research shows that children are not capable of understanding, appreciating consequences. Neurological studies show that they should not be criminally responsible at a lower age than 14, so 9 is simply shocking.”
Dr. Jeff Temple, professor and psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch and a board member of the Texas Psychological Association says that young children do not understand that there are tangible consequences for their actions.
“There is certainly enough that we know about the developing mind in psychology to say that a 9-year-old can not be responsible for an illegal offense for purposeful murder or intentional kills,” Temple says. “At that age, the mind is not developed enough — they’re not thinking of consequences, they’re impulsive basically, they’re watching cartoons where the Road Runner runs off the cliff, falls 500 feet, dies and is alive in the next scene so they don’t have a good sense of life or death.”
Temple adds that he believes that the 9-year-old who allegedly started the blaze may have done so on purpose — even knowing people could get hurt — but still not understand the “permanence” of death.
“Kids do stupid things all the time and don’t really think about the consequences,” he says. “It could have been, as terrible as this was, that he wanted to see what it was like to see something burn down — even if he knew someone was in it. My guess is he doesn’t understand the nature of consequence and actions, even if he thought someone was going to burn, he probably didn’t have that sense of permanence that they weren’t going to come back and that they were going to be dead and gone forever.
“I just don’t think we can hold someone who still believes in the Easter bunny and accuse them of having the intent of murdering someone when they don’t even know the meaning of what death really is,” Temple adds.
Clarke notes that it’s a particularly surprising decision to her because Illinois is the home of the first juvenile court, which was established in 1899. “The whole idea was to give children a second chance,” she says. “Illinois led the world in protection for children and now we’re so far behind.”
In 2018, 62 juveniles in the U.S. under the age of 15 were charged with murder and non-negligent manslaughter, up from 59 the previous year, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In September, an Orlando school resource officer made national headlines after arresting two 6-year-olds at an Orlando charter school, violating the department’s policy for arresting people under the age of 12. On Sept. 23, Orlando Police Chief Orlando Rolón announced that officer Dennis Turner had been fired, saying he was “sick to his stomach” when he found out about the arrest.