Saturday

December 16th, 2017

On Law

'I shot dad': The tragic case of a child who killed his abusive, neo-Nazi father

  Kristine Guerra

By Kristine Guerra The Washington Post

Published August 29, 2016

'I shot dad': The tragic case of a child who killed his abusive, neo-Nazi father

 
  The Halls, in happiier times.

Jeffrey Hall was unequivocal about what he wanted.

"I want a white nation," he once told the Los Angeles Times. "I don't hide what I am, and I don't water that down."

An unemployed plumber who used to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border looking for illegal immigrants, Hall was a rising star among white supremacists.

He would often speak at rallies, promoting the goals of the National Socialist Movement, the largest neo-Nazi organization in the country, with 46 chapters in 20 states. In a YouTube video of a 2009 anti-immigration rally in Southern California, Hall, the National Socialist Movement's regional director there, is seen holding a megaphone with a smiling Hitler emoji sticker on it as he proclaims the need for "white immigration" and a "pro-white" America.

But Hall's rise in the movement ended abruptly. He died in May 2011, when he was shot at point-blank range while sleeping on his living room couch.

The killer - in a shocking twist - was his 10-year-old son, Joseph, a troubled boy whose childhood was fraught with violence perpetrated by his father.

As the oldest of Hall's children, Joseph, it seemed, was first in line to get a glimpse of his father's activities, including shooting guns and patrolling the Mexican border for illegal immigrants. But Joseph also bore the brunt of Hall's violent outbursts.

On May 1, 2011, hours after a meeting of the neo-Nazi group at Hall's house in Southern California, the boy took his father's revolver from the upstairs bedroom where his stepmother was sleeping.

Joseph fired a bullet into his father's head, just behind his father's left ear.

As his 32-year-old father lay lifeless in a pool of blood, Joseph admitted what he had done.

"I shot dad," he told his stepmother, according to court records.

During an interrogation that lasted more than an hour, Joseph was allowed to give up his Miranda rights - a decision the boy made without an attorney's guidance and, some argue, without fully understanding what that entailed.

And as Joseph's statements to police suggest, he understood little about death and its lasting consequences.

"How many lives do people usually get?" Joseph asked police officers after they arrived at the crime scene, according to court records.

Joseph has been in custody since his father's death. In 2013, the boy was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to serve 10 years in a California juvenile facility.

Many child advocates and politicians think the boy's conviction was flawed. They argue that Joseph, a child with developmental disabilities, could not have realized the wrongfulness of what he had done - and could not have understood what it meant when he gave up his Miranda rights while being interrogated by police after the shooting.

Joseph's culpability and the issue of allowing children to waive their Miranda rights without any legal guidance are now the subject of proposed legislation in California, as well as a pending appeal to the nation's highest court.

"There's not a 10-year-old on the planet who ought to be in a position of waiving a constitutional right without an advice from an adult," said Scott Ballenger, part of Joseph's legal team, which has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review Joseph's appeal, after it was denied by the California courts.

Five years after Hall's death, Joseph's case prompted California legislators to introduce a bill that would provide children with some layer of protection from police interrogation.

Unlike some states, California doesn't have a law that requires young children to receive legal guidance from an attorney or a guardian before they're interrogated.

Introduced in February, Senate Bill 1052 could potentially affect hundreds of children like Joseph who enter the criminal justice system at a young age. It would require those younger than 18 to first consult with an attorney or a legal guardian before they're allowed to waive their Miranda rights - and before they're interrogated by a police officer.

The bill has been approved by the California Senate and Assembly and was sent back to the Senate this week for a final vote. "We have to update our laws to be realistic, to be sure that children have protection before they're aggressively interrogated," the bill's author, state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, told The Washington Post. "Young people don't grasp what they're agreeing to."

SB 1052, if it becomes law, won't have any effect on Joseph's case, though it spurred the legislation.

Hall's supporters described him as a loving, dedicated father and a patriotic, charismatic leader.

As the extremist group's regional head for the southwestern states, Hall hosted monthly meetings, party games, backyard get-togethers and birthday celebrations in his home in Riverside, California, east of Los Angeles.

A "60 Minutes" feature, "The Murder of an American Nazi," showed members of the group singing "Happy Birthday to You" in Hall's living room - and ending the song with the Nazi salute.

The same video showed a uniformed Hall - who had a cross and rose tattoo on the back of his shaved head - talking to a group as three large swastika signs towered behind him.

"This isn't dress-up; this isn't a game," Hall told them. "We're fighting for our children's future."

Court records paint a darker side to the unemployed plumber who once tried to unseat a local water board incumbent, winning nearly 30 percent of the vote.

Hall was addicted to drugs, including methamphetamine, and was often violent toward his wife and children, especially Joseph, according to court records.

Hall punished his son every day for being too loud or for getting in his way - sometimes by punching and kicking him several times in the back, the boy's stepmother, Krista McCary, told police.

While in the police car, Joseph told officers that he shot his father because he had repeatedly beat him and members of his family, court records say. The night before, Hall threatened to remove all the smoke detectors and burn the house down while his family slept.

Joseph's exposure to drugs and alcohol began in the womb. His mother consumed heroin, meth, LSD, marijuana and alcohol when she was pregnant.

He had uncontrollable outbursts that started at age 3, when his paternal grandmother had a hard time babysitting him, court records say.

At school, he was a difficult child, unable to sit still and often throwing violent tantrums at his classmates and teachers, court records say. At times, he was physically restrained, removed from class or suspended for bad behavior.

By age 10, Joseph, who had pervasive Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and low-average intelligence, had been to six different schools before his father and stepmother decided to home-school him.

Child Protective Services issued 23 reports of alleged abuse, neglect and poor living conditions in Hall's home. Court records say most of the accusations were unfounded.

But after police officers arrived at the home, they found dirty clothes and empty beer bottles everywhere. The bedrooms reeked of urine, while the mattresses, pillows and blankets were stained and soiled, court records say.

Weapons, including the .357 Magnum Joseph used, were easily accessible to the children. Police found the revolver under Joseph's bed, where he hid it after killing his father. A .22-caliber rifle was in the garage leaning against a wall, court records say. An unlocked cabinet had ammunition and several other sharp weapons.

Joseph did not only have access to guns at home; at age 10, he knew how to use them.

Hall sometimes took Joseph to the Mexican border, where heavily armed members of the neo-Nazi group patrolled for illegal immigrants.

There, court records say, he taught his son how to shoot.

When Joseph was asked what "you have the right to remain silent" meant, he thought it meant he had "the right to stay calm."

When he was asked what "anything you say will be used against you in a court of law" meant, he didn't respond, according to court records.

When he was asked what "you have the right to talk to a lawyer and have a lawyer with you" meant, he stumbled when he tried to explain.

Court records say a Riverside police detective in charge of the shooting investigation did not read Miranda warnings to the boy until roughly two minutes into the interrogation. When she finally did, the officer recited each sentence and asked Joseph if he understood it. Each time, the officer had to correct Joseph or explain to him what the sentences meant.

About 45 minutes into the interrogation, the detective left the room for a break. His stepmother was recorded telling Joseph that he didn't have to talk to the officer if he didn't want to.

"But, it's good that you told the truth," she told him, according to court records.

The stepmother's presence during the interrogation is another component of Joseph's appeal to the Supreme Court.

The boy's attorneys argue that she should not have been the adult guiding Joseph at that time. For one, her husband was the victim, which placed her in an inherent conflict of interest, said Ballenger, the attorney. And she herself later became a prosecution witness against Joseph during his trial.

The case - JOSEPH H. v. STATE OF CALIFORNIA - caught the attention of the Juvenile Law Center, the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and Human Rights Watch - all of whom questioned whether the boy knew and understood the concept of waiving his Miranda rights.

Marsha Levick, co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center, said that's highly unlikely for a child as young as Joseph was when he fired a gun at his father's head.

"First of all, you're dealing with a 10-year-old," Levick told The Post. "Anytime you're talking about a child that young involved in any crime and in this case, the most serious crime, what we're concerned about is how does one establish guilt and blameworthiness."

Such is Joseph's key defense - not whether he committed the crime, but whether he knew it was wrong.

The California attorney general's office argues that he does.

The agency argued in court records that even without being asked, Joseph told police that he shot his father, that he knew it was wrong and that he felt guilty.

The attorney general's office also cited a previous California Court of Appeals ruling, in which the judges didn't find any evidence that the boy was coerced into talking to police, as well as testimony from a psychological expert who said the boy was able to tell between right and wrong.

The boy's probation officer also testified that he "posed a serious risk to the community," according to court records.

The attorney general's office declined to comment further about the case.

However, a "60 Minutes" interview with the Riverside County prosecutor who handled the case suggests that Joseph did not entirely comprehend what happened and what was about to happen at that time.

Mike Soccio, a former Riverside County chief deputy district attorney, told the CBS News program that when Joseph was taken to juvenile hall, staff had to buy him a pair of tennis shoes because the facility didn't have anything small enough to fit him.

"He asked if he'd be able to keep the shoes when he left, which showed an absolute lack of understanding of what was going to be happening," Soccio said in 2011.

Recent efforts to reach Soccio, who has since left the district attorney's office, were unsuccessful.

Lara, the California legislator, said one of the state Supreme Court justices' words about Joseph's case convinced him of the need for legislative reform.

In his dissenting opinion to the court's ruling against Joseph last year, Justice Goodwin Liu said:

"In 2011, Joseph was one of 613 children under the age of 12 arrested for a felony in California. … This case raises an important legal issue that likely affects hundreds of children each year: whether and, if so, how the concept of a voluntary, knowing, and intelligent Miranda waiver can be meaningfully applied to a child as young as 10 years old. A Miranda waiver, to be valid, must be 'made voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently.'"

Lara said SB 1052 is a "fair, simple and humane" way to make sure that young kids have special protections when their lives intersect with the criminal justice system.

The bill's co-author, state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, said Joseph's case shows that the criminal justice system has long made wrong assumptions about how young children respond to police interrogation.

"We continue to deny the fact that kids aren't merely small versions of adults," Mitchell told The Post. "What's tragic about the case that's now come to the court's attention is we probably have no idea how many kids have waived their rights."

Fourteen states have rules, either through legislation or court rulings, that require children younger than a certain age to first talk to a legal guardian or an attorney before they waive their Miranda rights.


In Iowa, Montana and Connecticut, the age limit is 16. In Kansas, it's 14. In Indiana, a legal guardian or an attorney must consent to the Miranda waiver.

Joseph, now 15, is in one of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's four juvenile facilities. By the time he gets out, he'll be 23.

Nima Mohebbi, one of Joseph's attorneys, said the teen is attending school while serving his sentence but declined to reveal where he is currently incarcerated, citing privacy issues.

"He's extremely grateful for the opportunity to raise his issues to the court, and he understands the importance of the issues," Mohebbi told The Post. "He's a really great kid."

It's unclear how Hall's death affected the National Socialist Movement, whose website has a page dedicated him.

Hall, it says, "spent countless volunteer hours on the California and Arizona Borders leading Patrols in efforts to halt illegal immigration, organized rallys, meetings, and events for the NSM countless times. Jeff was looked up to, and respected by thousands of people."

The tribute from Jeff Schoep, head of the National Socialist Movement, adds that Hall "touched the lives of so many people, and was a tremendous inspiration to everyone around him. His energy and devotion to our Folk and Nation knew no bounds."

Schoep called Hall "a loving Father of five children, a family man, and a dedicated American Patriot. Those of us whom had the honor to know, work with, or spend time with Jeff Hall know well what kind of person he was. Jeff was a dedicated Father, his children were his life."

Levick, of the Juvenile Law Center, said the abuse Joseph endured was not uncommon. Nevertheless, she said, the circumstances surrounding his case are "deeply troubling."

"The fact that the perpetrator is 10 years old makes a story one that you really sit up and pay attention to," Levick said. "Think about what goes through a child's mind that would even get them to that point where they think they can go get a gun and put it to their father's head."

Columnists

Toons

Lifestyles