Monday, 27 October 2014

Children who committed murder (Part 1)

When we read about children who committed murder, we are shocked to the core.  However, we mustn’t forget that evil thoughts can be found in the minds of children just as they can in adults. The difference is that children don’t think of the consequences that adults do so they have less reason to fear consequences because in some countries, they are treated as young offenders and their periods of imprisonment is far less than that awarded to adult offenders—and they know this.

Part 1 of this series will deal with girls who commit murder.  Yes, some of those sweet girls who were cuddly babies and adorable tots can later harbour the desire to kill human beings, especially after watching violent movies on TV.

Mary Flora Bell (born 26 May 1957) is a British woman who, as a child, strangled to death two little boys in Scotswood, an inner-city suburb of Newcastle upon Tyne. She was convicted in December 1968 of the manslaughter of the two boys, Martin Brown (aged four) and Brian Howe (aged three). Bell was eleven years old when she was convicted for killing Brown and Howe.  She served 12 years imprisonment.  Had she committed the crime in Canada, she wouldn’t even have been tried for the killings of those two boys since she was a young offender under the age of 12. However she would have been placed in a foster home because her mother was a prostitute. Since her release from prison in 1980, (she served the full 12 years) she has lived under a series of pseudonyms. Her identity has been protected by a court order, which has also been extended to protect the identity of her daughter. She is at the time of this writing, 57 years of age.

On 25 May 1968, the day before her 11th birthday, Mary Bell strangled four-year-old Martin Brown in a derelict house. She was believed to have committed this crime alone. Between that time and a second killing, she and a friend, Norma Joyce Bell (1955–89; no relation), aged 13, broke into and vandalised a nursery in Scotswood, leaving notes that claimed responsibility for the killing. The police dismissed this incident as a prank, that is until they found the bodies of the two boys.

On 31 July 1968, the two girls took part in the second death by the strangulation, of three-year-old Brian Howe, on wasteland in the same Scotswood area. Police reports concluded that Mary Bell had later returned to his body to carve an “N” into his stomach with a razor; this was then changed using the same razor but with a different hand to an "M". Mary Bell also used a pair of scissors to cut off some of Howe's hair, scratch his legs, and mutilate his penis. As the girls were so young and their testimonies contradicted each other, the precise details of what happened to their victims have never been entirely clear.
An open verdict had originally been recorded for Brown's death as there was no evidence of foul play although Bell had strangled him but her grip was not hard enough to leave any marks. Eventually, his death was linked with Howe's killing and in August 1968 the two girls were charged with two counts of manslaughter.

On the 17th of  December 1968, at Newcastle Assizes, Norma Bell was acquitted but Mary Flora Bell was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, the jury taking their lead from her diagnosis by court-appointed psychiatrists who described her as displaying “classic symptoms of psychopathy”. The judge, Mr. Justice Cusack, described her as being dangerous and said she posed a “very grave risk to other children.” She was sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure, effectively an indefinite sentence of imprisonment. She was initially sent to Red Bank secure unit in St. Helens, Lancashire—the same facility that would house Jon Venables, one of James Bulger's child killers, 25 years later.

After her conviction, Mary Bell was the focus of a great deal of attention from the British press and also from the German Stern magazine. Her mother repeatedly sold stories about her to the press and often gave reporters writings she claimed to be by her daughter. Bell herself made headlines when, in September 1977, she briefly absconded from Moore Court open prison, where she had been held since her transfer from a young offenders institution to an adult prison a year earlier. Her penalty for this was a loss of prison privileges for 28 days.

In 1980, Bell, aged 23, was released from Askham Grange open prison, having served 12 years, and was granted anonymity (including a new name) allowing her to start a new life. Four years later she had a daughter, born on 25 May 1984; Bell's daughter did not know of her mother's past until Bell's location was discovered by reporters and she and her mother had to leave their house with bed sheets over their heads.

Bell's daughter's anonymity was originally protected only until she reached the age of 18. However, on 21 May 2003, Bell won a High Court battle to have her own anonymity and that of her daughter extended for life. Any court order permanently protecting the identity of a convict in Britain is consequently sometimes known as a "Mary Bell order."

In 2009, it was reported that Bell had become a grandmother.

Attina Marie Cannaday (born September 8, 1965) was charged with robbery, kidnapping, and homicide. At the time of her trial, she was a sixteen-year-old divorcee, who had married at thirteen and divorced at fourteen. She was convicted in Harrison County Circuit Court of the kidnap and murder of U.S. Air Force Sergeant Ronald Wojcik and the jury sentenced her to death by lethal injection. The guilty verdict was upheld, but the sentence was reversed in 1984, Cannaday v. State, and she was resentenced to one life sentence and two 25-year sentences at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (inmate number 42451). She was released on parole on March 9, 2008 after being incarcerated for 27 years.  At the time of this writing, she would be 49 years old.

In Canada, she would be eligible to apply for parole after serving 25 years in prison.

Paula Cooper (born August 25, 1969 in Gary, Indiana, United States) was sentenced to death by electrocution on July 11, 1986 for the murder and torture of 78-year-old Ruth Pelke. Cooper stabbed Pelke 33 times with a butcher knife before stealing ten dollars and Pelke's car. Because Cooper was only fifteen years of age at the time of the murder, her sentence attracted an international uproar, including a condemnation from Pope John Paul II. In 1989, her sentence was commuted to 60 years in prison. On June 17, 2013, Cooper was released from Rockville Correctional Facility

To execute a person by electrocution for committing a murder when the criminal was only age 16 is shocking (now there is a play on words) so it is easy to see why the pope was outraged. When Canada had the death penalty, the condemned had to be at least eighteen before he was hanged. One boy in Canada who was convicted of murder was sentenced to death when he was 14 but everyone knew that he wouldn’t be hanged, even the judge who passed that sentence knew that. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison and he was released when he was in his twenties.  In the United States, a 14-year-old boy was executed by electrocution.  However, that happened many, many years ago.   

The Sasebo slashing   refers to the murder of a 12-year-old Japanese schoolgirl, Satomi Mitarai  by an 11-year-old female classmate The murder occurred on June 1, 2004 at an elementary school in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan, and involved slitting of Mitarai's throat and arms with a utility knife. The name of the murderess wasn’t disclosed by the Japanese authorities. That same policy exists in Canada when the criminal is a young offender.

On June 1, 2004, the 11-year-old schoolgirl murdered her 12-year-old classmate, Satomi Mitarai, in an empty classroom during the lunch hour at Okubo Elementary School in Sasebo. She then left Mitarai's body and returned to her own classroom, her clothes covered in blood. The girls' teacher, who had noticed that both were missing, found the body and called the police.

After being taken into custody, she was reported to confess to the crime, saying “I am sorry, I am sorry.” to police. She spent the night at the police station, often crying, and refused to eat snacks she was offered. Eventually, she ate bread and drank juice. She initially mentioned no motive for the killing. Shortly afterward, she confessed to police that she and Mitarai had quarreled as a result of messages left on the Internet. She claimed that Mitarai had slandered her  by commenting on her weight and calling her a “goody-goody.” Actually, it was libel, not slander.

This case is a strong message to young people who think no harm will come to them when they insult their classmates on the Internet.

On September 15, 2004, a  Japanese Family Court  ruled  to  institutionalize her, putting aside her young age because of the severity of the crime. She was sent to a reformatory in Tochigi prefecture. The Nagasaki family court in 2004 originally sentenced her to two years of involuntary commitment, but the sentence was extended by another two years in September 2006. On May 29, 2008, local authorities announced that they did not seek an additional sentence. 

The killing provoked a debate in Japan whether the age of criminal responsibility, lowered from 16 to 14 in 2000 due to the 1997 Kobe child murders, needed to be lowered again. The killer who was 14 at the time, killed two boys was considered normal before the incident, which made the public more anxious.

In Canada, prior to 2003, the Young Offenders Act stated that the age of criminality began when the young offender turned 14. I sent the government and very long report outlining the concerns I had that children under 14 were committing murders. I suggested that the age of criminality in young offenders should be lowered to the age of 12. I am convinced many other people expressed the same sentiments as I had. The old Act was repealed in 2003 with the passing of the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The new Act established the national age of criminal responsibility at 12 years of age for youths who break any of the laws listed in the Criminal Code.  

It is not easy to establish for certain why some children commit murders. It is easy to understand what their motives are however. Their motives generally included either anger, revenge or greed. These are the same kinds of motives that can be found in the minds of adult murderers.  But what is it in their brains that prompts some children to kill human beings? 
One thing to keep in mind regarding adolescent and pre-adolescent behavior is that they react differently than adults in stressful or traumatic situations because their brains are not fully developed. Teens and pre-teens act more impulsively and make poor judgments because they only consider the moment and aren’t thinking about the future or consequences. Most mature adults can control their intentions to kill someone they hate because when they reach 24, their brains are in proper working order. Of course, there are many adults of that age and older who kill human beings of course. However, children and young people under 24 don’t have the advantage of having fully mature and functional brains so their inhibitions are not the same as adults whose brains are fully developed.

I am convinced that many of these child murderers don’t fear the consequences following their crimes as they are aware that they won’t be serving a long period of incarceration.

Further, I don’t think that children really appreciate the significance of a human life the way adults do. It is only when you have lived a long life does one really understand what it means to have your life cut short and lose the opportunity to experience those many things  that makes life worth living. Only when we have lived a normal and reasonably pleasant life and are able to enter old age do we really appreciate being alive. Children can’t be taught that hence those that kill others are indifferent to the lives of their victims.

It is unfortunate indeed that there will always be child murderers. It is a fact of life.

Part 2 will be about young boys who committed murder.

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