Waiving the Age of Reason

Natasha Vargas-Cooper   January 05, 2016
Brennan Lashever

The naughty chair. / Brennan Lashever

Most kids start to learn their multiplication tables in the third grade. Their storybooks—typically illustrated, with only a few sentences per page—begin to give way to short chapter books. A year later, they are taught the difference between sedimentary and volcanic rock. By the end of fourth grade, around age ten, it’s hoped that most kids will be able to tell apart an antonym and a synonym. And according to the state of California, ten-year-olds should also know enough to “voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently” waive their right to remain silent before they are interrogated by police, so the statements that they make are admissible, should there be further criminal proceedings, in a court of law.

In October 2015, the California Supreme Court held a closed court session to rule on the matter of a boy, Joseph Hall, who, at the age of ten, had fatally shot his abusive neo-Nazi father while he slept on the family couch. Back in 2013, Joseph was found guilty of second-degree homicide, and it was decided he should be incarcerated until he turns twenty-three. The issue that returned before the court in October was Joseph’s “decision” to waive his Miranda rights on the night of the slaying. 

Joseph was born to a meth-addicted mother who was the focus of several Child Protective Services complaints stemming from neglect and various boyfriends who abused Joseph both physically and sexually. When he was a toddler, Joseph’s mother lost custody to Joseph’s father, Jeffery Hall. Jeffery was a plumber who would eventually lose his job and spend most of his time on party responsibilities inside Southern California’s small but serious National Socialist Movement. As a bonding activity, Jeffery would take his son Joseph to shoot at migrants along the San Diego–Tijuana border.

In each of the nine schools Joseph was kicked out of before the age of ten, he was hyper, disruptive, and prone to violent outbursts. He’s been diagnosed as having developmental disorders, a borderline low IQ, and learning disabilities.

After divorcing Joseph’s mother, Jeffery married a woman named Krista McCary, who would be twenty-six at the time of his murder. Jeffery and Krista fought often and violently. When Krista learned of an affair Jeffery was having with a woman named Sam, their fights escalated until during one, according to court documents, Jeffery threatened to turn off the smoke detectors while the family slept and set the house on fire. Later that evening, Joseph crept into the master bedroom, took Jeffery’s loaded Rossi .357 magnum revolver in his small hands, walked downstairs to the family couch where Jeffery Hall was sleeping, and blew his dad’s brains out. 

The bang awoke Krista.

“I shot dad,” Joseph told her.

Joseph would later explain to police that he didn’t think he would be “in trouble” because of similar circumstances he’d seen on the television show Criminal Minds. “A bad father did something to his kids and the kid did the exact thing I did—he shot him,” Joseph would say. “He told the truth and wasn’t arrested and the cops believed him. He wasn’t in trouble or anything. I thought maybe the exact same thing would happen to me.”

When the police arrived, Krista originally said she shot Jeffery. She quickly recanted, claiming she was trying to protect Joseph. Krista made no attempt to contact an attorney or interfere in the police interrogation of ten-year-old Joseph. She allowed Joseph to sit in the back of a police car and talk unencumbered. The following conversation was recorded inside the police car:

Joseph: And I killed my dad. I shot him with a .357 and it hit his ear.

Officer: Oh yeah?

Joseph: Yeah, it might have went through. I didn’t see the bullet heading out . . . When my dad was asleep, I was kind of still, well, little mad at him . . . Yeah, I’m going to have a different father. My life is going to change. I thought it was going to get a little better because I’m not going to get hurt. That will mean that my dad is going to be dead or Dad will be alive and [unintelligible] have to do brain surgery. Might have to teach him stuff, but that’s good. That’s kind of a good thing, that we teach him. And then he won’t go off with Sam. What if he’s alive? Then what am I going to tell him? [Unintelligible] mean if I say that I shot him? What do you think I should do if he asks who shot? . . . I hope there will be a lot of people at his funeral if he dies.

None of the officers in the car gave Joseph a Miranda warning.

Later at the police station, during a filmed interview, with Krista next to Joseph and a bag of McDonald’s on the table, Detective Roberta Hopewell tried to explain the concepts of self-incrimination and the right to remain silent to the fourth-grade boy who had just killed his abusive father.

Hopewell: Okay. Now, I’m going to read you something and it’s—it’s called your Miranda Rights. And, I know you don’t understand really what that is. But, that’s why your mom’s here. Okay? And, she’s gonna listen to it and then, she’s going to give me your answers. Okay? If you want to answer for you, that’s great too. Okay? If you don’t understand something, w-when I state something, I want you to tell me. I don’t know what you’re talking about or I don’t understand.

Joseph: All right.

Hopewell: Okay? All right. Right now, you know you’re here because of what happened to your dad?

Joseph: Yeah.

Hopewell: All right. So, you have the right to remain silent. You know what that means?

Joseph: Yes, that means that I have the right to stay calm.

Hopewell: That means y-you do not have to talk to me. 

Joseph: Right.

Hopewell: Okay? And, anything you say, will be used against you in a court of law. Do you know what that means? That means that if we have to go to court and tell the judge what, what you did, that whatever you’re gonna tell me today, I can tell the judge, “This is what Joseph told me.” Okay? 

Joseph: Okay.

Hopewell: You understand that?

Joseph: Yeah.

Hopewell: Okay. And, you have the right to talk to a lawyer and have a lawyer here with you—an attorney—before I ask you any questions. Do you understand that? And, you shake your head upside uh what does that . . .

Joseph: Yes.

Hopewell: . . . mean? What does that mean to you?

Joseph: It means, don’t talk until that means to not talk till the attorney or . .  .

Hopewell: That means, you have the choice. That you can talk to me with your mom here or you can wait and have an attorney before you talk to me.

Joseph: Okay.

Hopewell: Okay? But it’s your choice and it’s your mom’s choice. Okay?

Joseph: Okay.

Hopewell: All right. And, if you can’t afford one—’cause I know you don’t have a job, no money—um, the court will appoint one, an attorney for you. Before I talk to you about anything. Do you understand that? 

Joseph: Yeah. 

Hopewell: Okay. So, with you—you got your mom here. I have some questions that I do want to ask you. What happened with your dad. Do you want to talk to me and tell me what happened?

Joseph: Um, first, do you want to know what hap— what we were doing before?

Hopewell: Yeah, I want you to tell me everything that was going on. So, do you want to talk to me about that?

Joseph: (Nods head in the affirmative.)

At no point did Krista interrupt or aid Joseph in his decision to waive his rights. Krista has long been a person of suspicion for Joseph’s defense team. In their petition to overthrow Joseph’s Miranda waiver they list her as a person who has a direct conflict of interest with Joseph regarding his rights to silence and an attorney.

When I was covering Joseph’s trial in 2012, those close to the defense team asked how the boy would have known where the gun was hidden in the master bedroom. How could the boy have reached the gun? And all while his stepmother slept in the same room? While no one outright accused Krista of pulling the trigger, it seemed possible that during one of her fights with Jeffery she told Joseph about the gun. And perhaps, it was speculated, how that gun could change their lives.

After the guilty verdict, Joseph’s defense team filed the appeal, arguing, in part, that the boy’s waiver of his Miranda rights was invalid given the child’s circumstances. In October 2015, the California Supreme Court voted four to three to uphold the waiver. In other words, they believe Joseph’s responses indicated he understood his Miranda rights and that he validly waived them despite, as Justice Goodwin H. Liu noted in his dissent, “his young age, his ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder], and low-average intelligence.”

Liu’s dissent is insightful and withering, citing opinions from several courts who have challenged the absurd notion that very young children can intelligently comprehend and discard their Miranda rights. Liu refers to a 1985 case in Maryland wherein a ten-year-old, Lucas F., was accused of severely beating a playmate with a rock.

In that case, it challenged the notion that very young children can comprehend what’s being asked of them:

Undoubtedly, Lucas signed a paper writing in which he waived his right to the presence of counsel. The paper writing superficially satisfies Miranda’s dictates. Facially it appears constitutionally consecrated. But in the case of a child of age ten years, is that enough? Did he realize what services an attorney could perform for him? Did he understand that he was incriminating himself? Is an uncounseled Miranda waiver from a ten year old child enough to satisfy due process? Do justice and fundamental fairness require that the child have the benefit of the guidance of a parent or guardian before the child may waive Miranda rights?

Those questions and others lead us to believe that Lucas’s waiver of Miranda was almost, if not totally, meaningless.

While other states have had their juvenile Miranda rights reformed through court decisions or legislation, California still reviews Miranda waivers on a case-by-case basis. Those who oppose giving minors more protection of their Miranda rights often point to hardened sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who commit violent crimes and use their constitutional protections to avoid conviction. A way around lumping together the cognitive and criminal sophistication of ten-year-olds and seventeen-year-olds is to draw a bright-line between the two groups.

In New Mexico, statements or confessions made by a child under the age of thirteen cannot be used in court against them because it is presumed a child of that age cannot make an informed decision on a Miranda waiver. In Illinois, when a child under thirteen is suspected of murder or sexual assault, a lawyer must be present for the entire custodial process. In Iowa, a child under sixteen can’t waive their right to counsel without a parent’s consent. In Washington, only a parent can waive the rights of a child under the age of twelve. There are also protections for very young minors in Oklahoma, North Carolina, Connecticut, and Montana.

In states unwilling to recognize the differences between fourth graders and those who can legally have a driver’s license, like California or Florida, the dissenting opinions of judges on the matter offer some consolation that there are people who possess common sense in administering a bad law. Judge Gary Farmer noted in his dissenting opinion on a Miranda waiver for a ten-year-old in Florida who was convicted of arson:

Even recognizing that there is no per se rule against juvenile confessions, at the lowest end of the age spectrum there must be some ages where no confession will ever be admissible. It seems to me that, on age, I.Q. and learning disability alone, this child is at the outer edges of the universe of those who are capable as a matter of law of validly confessing to crimes. Indeed he is, even the majority might concede, barely at the age when reason begins.

Joseph Hall was one of 613 children under the age of twelve arrested for a felony in California in 2011. It’s unknown how many of those very young children waived their Miranda rights and under what circumstances they did so.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a criminal justice reporter in Los Angeles. She is also an associate editor for Broadly. She writes “Bad Behavior,” The Baffler’s crime column (which publishes every second Tuesday), and tweets from @natashavc.