RIVERSIDE Both the prosecution and the defense involved in a trial set to start here today agree on the following: Before dawn on May 1, 2011, a 10-year-old boy went to his family's living room with a snub-nosed revolver, pointed it at his father's head as he lay sleeping on the couch, and shot and killed him.
From there, the two sides are likely to differ on both the events that preceded the shooting and the boy's exact motive, elements complicated by his age and the fact that his father, Jeff Hall, was a rabid neo- Nazi. And it is those facts that raise several more philosophical quandaries which, depending on how the judge weighs the answers, may well determine the outcome of the trial.
Among them: whether virulent racism can amount to parental abuse; whether a child exposed to such hate can understand the difference between right and wrong; and whether someone who grows up in such toxic circumstances can be blamed for wanting a way out.
Prosecutor Michael Soccio says that the actions of the youngster have little to do with Nazism, but rather with his anger at being punished by his father at a party the day before his killing and the boy's worries that his father would leave his family. Though he says he sympathizes with the child and his upbringing "There's a sweet side to him," Soccio said in an interview earlier this month he also has little doubt that the boy is a killer.
"What he did, had it been done by anybody older, there would be no doubt that it was a murder," said Soccio, the chief deputy district attorney in Riverside County. "It's planned, it's premeditated, it was carried out in a cold, killing fashion. It is a murder."
But the boy's public defender, Matthew J. Hardy, says his client has neurological and psychological problems, compounded by exposure to neo-Nazi "conditioning" and physical abuse in the home.
"He's been conditioned to violence," Hardy said, adding, "You have to ask yourself: Did this kid really know that this act was wrong based on all those things?"
Instead, Hardy said the boy thought he was being a hero by shooting his father.
"He thought what he was doing was right," said Hardy. "And while that may be hard for other people to understand, in his mind, in a child's mind, if he thought it was right, or at least didn't think it was wrong, then he cannot be held responsible."
Whether that holds true is up to Judge Jean Leonard of Riverside Superior Court, who will oversee the jury-less trial. What is certain, however, is that if he is found responsible for the killing and made a ward of the state, the boy, who is now 12, would be the youngest person held in one of the three fenced-in facilities run by California's Department of Juvenile Justice. Those house about 900 of some of the state's most serious juvenile offenders. The median age of those offenders is 19, and, if convicted, the boy would not be eligible for release until he was 23.
The boy's case is also unusual because such acts of violence by children are exceedingly rare. Kathleen M. Heide, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, conducted a study of such killings and found only 16 arrests of a child under the age of 11 in the killing of a parent between 1976 and 2007, roughly one every two years.
Trials in such murders are even rarer, said Robert Weisberg, the co-director of the Criminal Justice Center at Stanford University, saying he could not recall seeing anyone that young on trial for such a crime in California.
Children as young as 10, or younger, who are accused of murder present special challenges to courts, said Heide, because of the longstanding legal belief that children are incapable of formulating the intent to commit the crime and do not understand the magnitude of its consequences. Children that young often do not grasp "that death means forever gone," she said.
California's penal code also says that children under 14 cannot be charged with a crime without clear proof that they knew its wrongfulness. But Soccio said that the boy in this case who had a history of violence, including an attack that involved wrapping a telephone cord around a teacher's neck needed to be in a security setting "receiving as much help as possible for as long as possible."
"I've had some people say, 'How can you do that to a little kid?' " said Soccio. "And I ask them, 'Well, would you like him to come live with you?' "
Whatever strategy the lawyers use, life inside the Hall household will likely come up in the trial, and the boy may take the stand himself, Soccio said. The court could also hear testimony from members of the neo-Nazi group the National Socialist Movement, of which Hall was a West Coast leader.
The day before the killing, Hall, 32, held a meeting of his members at his suburban Riverside home, where a Nazi flag was hung in the living room. A New York Times reporter, writing a story about the National Socialist Movement, was also at that meeting, where the group discussed plans for armed patrols on the Mexican border.
At the meeting's start, Hall, an unemployed plumber who had bragged in the past about teaching his son to shoot a weapon, scolded one of his children for interrupting him "Get outside or go upstairs and play!" before telling the group about the 10-year-old's breaking a set of cabinets in the house. "It was like the twin towers, 9/11, one stack came down, the other stack," he said.
During the meeting, the boy sat quietly at a table listening, and later sat with his stepmother, Krista McCary, as she fed a newborn. Hall had five children, including two from a previous marriage. He was awarded custody of the 10-year-old and his younger sister after a legal battle with his ex-wife. The custody battle included allegations of abuse on both sides.
Soccio said that Hall had occasionally gone "over the top" with physical punishments with his son, including kicks to the buttocks. But, he said, "nothing near criminal or even prohibited." Some friends, he said, called him a good parent.
But there is also the question of whether Hall's rhetoric, which included "sieg heils" and Nazi get- togethers in the home, amounted to psychological abuse. Hardy said the boy had endured episodes of domestic violence and child abuse "as well as the atmosphere that's created by the neo-Nazi activities." In one case, Hardy said, he had a photograph of the child holding an automatic pistol and standing next to a person in Ku Klux Klan regalia.
The night of the meeting at which the boy was spanked, Soccio said, the boy might have told a sibling that he planned to shoot his father, and Hardy said another family member might have encouraged it.
Just after 4 a.m., the Riverside police received a 911 call from McCary, reporting that her husband had been shot. Paramedics declared him dead when they arrived.
In August 2011, McCary pleaded guilty to child endangerment and criminal storage of a firearm. She and her three biological children now live with Hall's mother, Soccio said. Neither woman could be reached for comment.
Soccio said the boy worried that his father was cheating on his stepmother and that his family might be falling apart. But he remains skeptical that Hall's Nazism had much to do with the shooting. Rather, he thinks back to something he said the boy told investigators in the hours after the killing.
"(He) said at one point," Soccio recalls, " 'This father and son thing had to come to an end.' "