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Girls, 5 and 6, Killed Boy, 3, Authorities Say

Crime: Suffocation of child in Blythe opens a difficult debate on whether to file Juvenile Court charges against his sister and another relative.

August 16, 2000|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Authorities said Tuesday that two girls, barely more than toddlers, suffocated a 3-year-old boy with a pillow behind a home in the desert town of Blythe, opening a wrenching debate over whether the killing was a crime, and what, if anything, should be done about it.

Damien Stiffler was discovered by his father at 10 a.m. Sunday, lying in a relative's backyard with the pillow over his face. The boy was pronounced dead at Palo Verde Hospital in Blythe, a Riverside County city on the Arizona border that is an agricultural center and way station for motorists.

He was killed, officials said Tuesday, by his 6-year-old sister and a 5-year-old relative. Riverside County prosecutors say that in coming days, they will determine whether to pursue Juvenile Court charges against the girls.

Was it horseplay or homicide? And can--or should--anyone be held accountable for the boy's death?

"This is unique," said Riverside County Sheriff's Sgt. Mark Lohman. "When you have somebody who is 11, 12 or 13 years old, then you can say that the kids are old enough to know the difference between right and wrong. These kids are 5 and 6. It's hard to know what was going through their minds when this was going on."

In California and across the nation, legislators in recent years have handed prosecutors increasingly tough laws designed to charge juveniles for adult crimes.

Although these laws generally target young teenagers who are charged in adult court, they also have resulted in a series of head-turning prosecutions of younger children. Among them: a case in suburban Detroit last year in which a boy was convicted of murder, as an adult, for a killing committed when he was 11.

These girls are far younger. And while they clearly are too young for adult court, they could still be subjected to Juvenile Court proceedings. Some children's advocates say the case could become a test of the campaign to hold children accountable for adult crimes--a campaign, they say, that has become overzealous.

"Kids who are 6 are grappling with their belief in Santa Claus," said Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

"I have a 7-year-old. They don't understand permanence the way adults or even older teenagers do. I'm hoping that [prosecutors] give these kids a little compassion and don't drag them into the California criminal justice system."

According to Lohman, Damien spent Saturday night with his sisters, ages 6 and 12, at a relative's home in the 11000 block of 18th Avenue, a rural section of Blythe. Along with another relative, the 5-year-old, the children were playing together Sunday morning.

When Gerald Stiffler arrived at 10 a.m. to pick up his children, he found his son in the backyard. The adults who were home at the time, Lohman said, were sleeping inside.

Officials said Tuesday evening that the autopsy had been completed, but that they had not yet determined the cause of death. The girls, whose names were not released, have been interviewed by prosecutors.

"They were treated like kids," Lohman said. "But they understand that he is dead."

The debate over how to hold children responsible for criminal behavior is an old one, but dozens of states in recent years have attempted to hold minors more accountable.

Four years ago in the Bay Area city of Richmond, prosecutors "pushed the envelope" when they booked boys ages 8 and 6 for investigation of attempted murder, said Howard Snyder, director of systems research at the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh.

"People were astounded," Snyder said. The children are believed to be the youngest ever investigated for such a serious crime.

Under California law, to try children 14 and under, prosecutors must show a Juvenile Court judge clear and convincing evidence that a minor knew his or her actions were wrong.

Prosecutors must weigh a number of complex factors in presenting that evidence. For example, said Charles Gianguzi, a deputy district attorney in Riverside County, they might consider whether a child had been warned in the past of the consequences of dangerous behavior.

The nuances of a case presented against a child are often critical. In a Michigan school shooting earlier this year, for example, authorities discussed whether a 6-year-old boy who killed a classmate threw his gun in a trash can. If he did, they theorized, it could indicate that he understood the consequences of pulling the trigger.

"When you are dealing with persons of such tender years, it's a very difficult determination to make," Gianguzi said.

"We're dealing with a fundamental threshold. You have to show the court that this kid has been down this road before. . . . We'll take all the information into consideration."

Given the children's ages, Riverside County Dist. Atty. Grover Trask said it is unlikely that charges will be pursued.

"It's going to be very difficult to prosecute these cases in the criminal justice system," he said. "The issue becomes much more blurred at 13 or 14. That is where there is disagreement as to criminal liability."

Trask said it was more likely that his agency would review the case and pass it to another agency that can help the girls, such as a mental health agency or a social worker.

Snyder favors that approach, noting that he has mixed feelings about charging children with crimes: He believes prosecutors can be overzealous in pursuing charges, but an arrest is often the only way that social workers will step into a troubled child's life.

"You don't want them to simply ignore the problem," Snyder said. "The Juvenile Court was designed not to punish, but to use their acts as a red flag that these kids need help."

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