Juvenile Killer: Is 11 Too Young for First Degree Murder?

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By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on October 06, 2015 11:57 AM

McKayla Dwyer, 8, had a puppy. Her neighbor, 11, wanted to see it. Dwyer said no and the boy shot her with his father's shotgun from inside his home. He is now charged with first degree murder.

This incident happened on Saturday night in White Penn, Tennessee, according to the Associated Press. The boy's name is not being released because he is a juvenile. After his first hearing yesterday, Ed Miller, the 4th Judicial District Public Defender said the court has ordered the boy to remain detained. He is scheduled for a hearing on October 18, but the PD expects delays.

Juveniles: Old Enough to Be Punished

In most states, juveniles are classified as 8 to 17 years old. This age group is considered old enough to be punished for crime but not old enough to do time with adults. Children under seven years old are generally not charged with crimes.

Local defense attorney Greg Isaacs told abc6 that no 11-year-old has ever been tried as an adult for murder in Tennessee. He predicts that efforts to try the child as an adult will result in fleets of mental health experts arguing that an 11-year-old cannot form the requisite intent for murder.

Intent Matters in Murder

First-degree murder is the most serious charge that could be leveled at the boy in this case. But in order for the state to prove he is guilty, it will have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that he had the requisite intent.

First-degree murder in Tennessee is a premeditated and intentional killing (or a murder arising from the commission of another felony or bombing). Premeditation is defined in the statute as follows:

  • Premeditation is an act done after exercising reflection and judgment. "
  • Premeditation means that the intent to kill must have been formed prior to the act itself. It is not necessary that the purpose to kill pre-exist in the mind of the accused for any definite period of time.
  • The mental state of the accused at the time the accused allegedly decided to kill must be carefully considered in order to determine whether the accused was sufficiently free from excitement and passion as to be capable of premeditation.

A Death for a Death?

Although the boy arguably formed the intent to kill Dwyer before he shot her, it may be difficult to say that his mental state met the requirements of premeditation. An 11-year-old who fired his father's gun from the living room over a puppy he did not get to see may not have been sufficiently free from excitement and passion to qualify as an intentional killing.

First degree murder is punishable by death in Tennessee. One of the aggravating factors warranting such a sentence once the state has proven murder is if the victim was under twelve years old. The girl who was shot here, Dwyer, was eight years old and had grown up next door to her killer. Her mother said the boy had bullied her daughter before.

Defense attorney Isaacs predicts that the boy will be held as a juvenile until he can be tried as an adult when he reaches age 19. "It's not going to be the lawyers, it's going to be the mental health experts and they're going to tell the court and petition the court when they feel he is rehabilitated.What they're going to do is go inside the mind of an 11-year-old, still riding bikes and watching Cartoon Network and find out why he did what he did."

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