I can’t stop thinking about that little boy who is charged with murder.

When I close my eyes, I imagine him in a courtroom sitting in a chair, as described in news reports, with his head barely visible over the back and his legs too short to reach the floor.

A 9-year-old boy, wearing blue plants and a red-checkered shirt, appeared in a juvenile courtroom in Illinois on Tuesday to hear the charges leveled against him.

Dahleen Glanton

Dahleen Glanton

How could someone so young possibly understand what it means to be charged with five counts of first-degree murder, two counts of arson and one count of aggravated arson?

Even basic words made no sense to him — alleged, arson, residence. His court-appointed lawyer had to explain their meaning. That should be evidence enough that the charges make no sense. This child has no idea what is in store for him.

The only good thing is that the boy, whose name we will not reveal because of his age, is too young to be sent to a juvenile detention center if he is convicted. The most he could get is up to five years of probation. So why hit him with the state’s most serious charges?

What we’re seeing in Illinois is a pattern of prosecutors charging young people excessively, simply because they can.

Even though there is no real benefit to society, children are being charged with first-degree murder as a means of leveraging a plea bargain to avoid a trial or simply to make a political statement about being tough on crime.

In the case of this 9-year-old, we’ll have to wait and see what Woodford County State’s Attorney Greg Minger expects to get out of it.

This is the second case in two months in which state prosecutors in Illinois have gone too far in filing first-degree murder charges against young people.

In Lake County, five teenagers were charged with first-degree murder under the state’s controversial felony murder rule after a homeowner shot and killed the sixth member of their group.

The teenagers were allegedly attempting to steal the homeowner’s car from his yard, and the man said he feared for his life. The murder charges were later dropped in a deal for lesser charges.

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The 9-year-old’s case is in a different county, involves a different prosecutor and entirely different circumstances. What the cases have in common is that the charges are an overreach and, though legal, never should have been brought against a child.

A youngster charged with murder is not something we want to see in America, particularly one as young as 9. Such things typically are reserved for countries that have no regard for humanity, not a nation that sets strict humanitarian standards for itself and demands that others do the same.

When it comes to children, prosecutors should be willing to err on the side of caution. While most Americans support holding children accountable within the juvenile court system, we also advocate for leniency to allow them a chance for redemption.

Without question, this child is accused of a horrific thing. Prosecutors said he deliberately set fire to a mobile home in Goodfield, Illinois, in April, killing five people, including his two half-siblings — a 2-year-old boy and a 1-year-old girl — and his 2-year-old cousin, his mother’s fiance and his great-grandmother. The boy and his mother escaped.

The child’s mother offered some insight into what may have led her son to set the trailer on fire. Katie Alwood told the Tribune that her son suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and ADHD. She said she is sure he never intended to kill anyone.

We don’t yet know why Minger is so sure the child intended to murder. We don’t know what criteria he used to get inside the head of a boy whose brain is so undeveloped at his age that his thought process and actions can often be at odds with each other.

In this case, it doesn’t really matter how Minger reached his conclusion, though. No 9–year-old should be charged with first-degree murder, regardless of what he did. They aren’t capable of even understanding the concept of murder. Such serious charges should be reserved for criminals who know what they are doing.

Perhaps it is easy for me to come to that conclusion since I didn’t have a loved one perish in that fire. It was not my 2-year-old daughter or my grandmother who lost their lives.

Perhaps if my heart were grieving as the boy’s aunt, Samantha Alwood’s, is, I would feel differently. Alwood’s 2-year-old daughter, Rose, is gone. At this point, no punishment seems sufficient to her, certainly not probation.

We cannot dismiss the anguish of the survivors who must live with the fact that three young children are dead for no explainable reason. Unfortunately, it’s too late to save them.

But as a society, we have a chance to save another child. With the proper treatment, adult supervision and medical resources, perhaps this 9-year-old could have a chance at rehabilitation and healing.

What this child needs from prosecutors and the courts right now is compassion, not an open-ended invitation to a life of crime.

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Dahleen Glanton writes for the Chicago Tribune.


(1) comment


Age "nine" is so relative. No unctisous givings from moi...court know what it is doing...I happen to know a 9 year old girl who is very capable of harming others, very, so we grant something subjective? Real life is relative...we are what we do...some do younger, some do older. The facts must be weighed...carefully...no subjective bias makes the village we live in better, either way.

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