Trial to start for California boy who killed neo-Nazi father

Difficult questions await judge who must decide if Joseph Hall, 12, committed murder when he shot his sleeping father in the head

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 4:05am

Both the prosecution and the defence involved in a trial set to start this week agree on the following: before dawn on May 1, 2011, 10-year-old Joseph Hall went to his family's living room armed with a snub-nosed revolver, pointed it at his father's head as he lay sleeping on the couch, and shot and killed him.

From there, the two sides are likely to differ on both the events that preceded the shooting and Joseph's exact motive, elements complicated by his age and the fact that his father, Jeff Hall, was a rabid neo-Nazi.

Those facts raise several more philosophical quandaries that, depending on how the judge weighs the answers, may determine the outcome of the trial. Among them: whether virulent racism can amount to parental abuse, whether a child exposed to such hate can understand the difference between right and wrong, and whether someone who grows up in such toxic circumstances can be blamed for wanting a way out.

The prosecutor, Michael Soccio, says Joseph's actions have little to do with Nazism, but rather with his anger at being punished and spanked by his father at a party the day before the killing and the boy's worries his father would leave his family. Though he says he sympathises with Joseph and his upbringing - "There's a sweet side to him," Soccio said in an interview this month - he has little doubt the boy is a killer.

"What he did, had it been done by anybody older, there would be no doubt it was a murder," said Soccio, the chief deputy district attorney in Riverside county. "It's planned. It's premeditated. It was carried out in a cold, killing fashion. It is a murder."

But Joseph's public defender, Matthew Hardy, says his client has neurological and psychological problems, compounded by exposure to neo-Nazi "conditioning" and physical abuse in the home.

"He's been conditioned to violence," Hardy said, adding: "You have to ask yourself: did this kid really know that this act was wrong based on all those things?"

Instead, Hardy said, Joseph thought he was being a hero by shooting his father. "He thought what he was doing was right. And while that may be hard for other people to understand, in his mind, in a child's mind, if he thought it was right, or at least didn't think it was wrong, then he cannot be held responsible."

Whether that holds true is up to Judge Jean Leonard of Riverside County Superior Court, who will oversee the murder trial without a jury.

What is certain is that, if found responsible for the killing and made a ward of the state, Joseph, who is now 12, would be the youngest person held in one of the three fenced-in facilities run by California's Division of Juvenile Justice, which houses about 900 of some of the state's most serious juvenile offenders. The median age of these offenders held by the state is 19, and, if found responsible for the murder, Joseph would likely be held until he was 23.

California's penal code also says that children under 14 cannot be charged with a crime without clear proof that "they knew its wrongfulness".

Whatever strategy the lawyers use, life inside the Hall household will most likely come up in the trial, and Joseph may take the stand, Soccio said.