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Will Elk Grove boy accused of abusing mom stand trial?

Published: Friday, Oct. 19, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013 - 1:40 pm

Wearing a crisp white shirt and striped tie, the boy jumped at the chance to tell the judge how well he was performing in school.

"Straight B's!" he told Judge Delbert W. Oros, responding to a question in Sacramento County Juvenile Court on Thursday.

Oros praised the boy, who was sitting between his father and his lawyer, assistant public defender Jeremiah Van Etten. But a much larger question loomed about the youngster, who at age 11 is facing felony charges of elder abuse and assault with a deadly weapon in the alleged beatings of his disabled mother.

Is a child so young capable of understanding the gravity of the accusations against him, and is he mature enough to help his lawyer defend him in court?

Judge Oros, at Van Etten's urging, appointed an expert Thursday who will help determine whether the Elk Grove boy is competent to stand trial.

Competency questions in juvenile cases are not unusual, but the child's age and the seriousness of the charges sets the case apart from most others, experts said. According to a 2007 report by the state Legislative Analyst's Office, the vast majority of juveniles arrested in California are ages 15 to 17. Only 2 percent of the arrests occur among youngsters ages 10 or 11.

Van Etten told Oros he has never had a client quite like the young boy, whom The Bee is not identifying because of his age. "He's certainly the youngest I've represented," the lawyer said.

He described the child, who appears younger than his 11 years, as "a very bright young man" but "very immature," easily distracted and limited in his ability to have conversations with his attorney about the case.

"I would ask the court to appoint a psychiatrist to see if he can understand and take part in the proceedings," Van Etten said as the boy fidgeted next to him. The judge agreed to do so.

"It's a delicate issue," Van Etten said later. "Is anyone mature at the age of 11?"

Because the proceedings are playing out in Juvenile Court, police and prosecutors have said little publicly about the allegations of abuse or the family circumstances. They have provided few details about the mother's disabilities, except to say she suffered from a range of medical problems. She was hospitalized for injuries allegedly inflicted by her son, and has since died of causes authorities say were unrelated to those injuries.

Before her death, police said, the mother, 51, lived alone with her son in Elk Grove, and he had primary responsibility for her care.

Police got involved last month after an outside source reported that the child had beaten his mom with an electrical cord on more than one occasion, causing serious injuries. A subsequent investigation confirmed that report, police said.

They arrested the boy at school and took him to juvenile hall, where he remained for a week. On Sept. 17, he was released to the custody of his father, who did not live with his son but was involved in his life, according to the defense attorney. The boy is now back in school and undergoing counseling, Van Etten said.

Now another psychological specialist will evaluate the youth to find out whether he can "factually and rationally" understand the court proceedings, and effectively communicate with his lawyers about key issues. If not, he will be deemed incompetent to stand trial.

When children face serious criminal charges, evaluators must determine whether they understand the roles of the judge and attorneys in the case, the seriousness of the crime and potential sentences, among other things, said Sidney Nelson, a Sacramento forensic psychologist who conducts such evaluations.

Until recently, California courts ruled juveniles incompetent to stand trial only if they had a developmental disability or mental illness that limited their ability to comprehend the proceedings. But in recent years, judges have been allowed to consider the "developmental maturity" of the child.

Few 11-year-olds are "developmentally mature" enough to understand the complexities of their legal circumstances, although "some definitely are more capable than others," said Craig West, another Sacramento-area psychologist who performs such assessments for the court.

A youngster whose family members have a history with the courts, who has a relative in the legal profession, or who regularly watches TV legal dramas might demonstrate such sophistication, said Nelson.

"There is no psychological test or instrument that gives you an exact score" as to the child's competency, he said. "There is some subjectivity to it. You look at a lot of factors."

A child who is compulsive, has problems focusing and repeatedly makes poor decisions might be deemed developmentally immature, and that alone could prompt a judge to find the youngster incompetent to stand trial, said West.

"If that happens, the next question becomes, 'What do you do with this kid, and who pays?' " he said.

If the Elk Grove boy is ruled incompetent to stand trial, the court could order him to undergo further counseling or special training to educate him about court proceedings, until he is deemed capable of going forward, said West. Those processes could take place at a facility overseen by the court or at home, he said.

In court Thursday, the boy smiled and seemed unconcerned about his circumstances. "I'm good!" he answered when the judge asked how he is getting along these days.

"Well, you listen to your Dad," Oros said, as the boy nodded. "What he says goes."

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Read more articles by Cynthia Hubert

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