By Dana Feldman
RIVERSIDE, California (Reuters) - A California boy, now 12, was convicted of second-degree murder on Monday for shooting dead his neo-Nazi father, following a juvenile trial that centered on allegations of abuse and the young defendant's grasp of right and wrong.
The verdict by Superior Court Judge Jean Leonard means that Joseph Hall, who was 10 years old when he shot his father to death at point-blank range in May of 2011, could be sentenced to a juvenile facility until he is 23.
He faces a disposition hearing on February 15 to determine where he will be placed.
Jeffrey Hall, 32, was a regional director of the National Socialist Movement, a white separatist group. The case in Riverside, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, has made headlines because of his neo-Nazi ties and the rarity of a parent being killed by a child so young.
In rendering her verdict, Leonard said she weighed evidence that the boy had suffered a lifetime of abuse. "He was abused and neglected from the womb," she said. "The NSM taught him things a minor should not know about."
The judge, who heard the case without a jury, said she had determined that at the time of the shooting Joseph Hall understood that what he was doing was wrong, a key finding in the juvenile court case.
"The minor chose his own way and made his own rules," she said. The boy showed little reaction as the verdict was read.
Because Hall is a minor, the purpose of the trial was not to determine guilt or innocence, but whether allegations about his motives and grasp of right and wrong were true.
'NO HAPPY ENDING'
Defense attorneys had argued during the trial that Hall should not be held responsible for his actions because a lifetime of abuse and his father's neo-Nazi activities had conditioned him to violence.
But prosecutors said that the boy, who lived with four siblings, shot his father because he thought he was planning to divorce his stepmother and break up the family. Hall shot his father with the man's own gun.
"This was a very difficult case to prosecute. I have very mixed emotions. There's a lot of sadness in it. Joseph is a little boy and his life has been very very sad," Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Michael Soccio said.
"My position is that the NSM had very little if anything to do with the killing," Soccio said. "The question is, what do we do now?"
Hall's lead defense attorney, Matthew Hardy, called the second-degree verdict a "tragedy" and said it could lead to his client's incarceration in a California Division of Juvenile Justice facility with the "worst of the worst" young offenders.
"If we create a monster, I'm not saying Joseph is a monster but as a society if we create a monster we have some responsibility for what that monster does," he said, adding that he was considering an appeal of the verdict.
Experts say the murder of a parent by a child so young is extremely rare.
Kathleen Heide, a criminologist who specializes in juvenile offenders, has told Reuters that 8,000 murder victims over the past 32 years were slain by their offspring, but only 16 of those crimes were committed by defendants aged 10 or younger.
"There can be no happy ending for our family," Hall's grandmother, JoAnn Becker, told Reuters following the verdict.
(Reporting by Dana Feldman and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Carol Bishopric and Andrew Hay)