Before sunrise, a troubled 10-year-old Riverside boy quietly crept downstairs with a loaded revolver, held it at his sleeping father's head and, using two fingers, squeezed the trigger.
That's not in dispute. Neither is this: The youngster will be a free man before his 23rd birthday, if not sooner.
A Riverside County judge will make the difficult decision Monday about whether the boy, now 12, possessed the mental capacity to know it was wrong to kill his father, an abusive neo-Nazi activist. But lurking behind that legal issue is a more vexing moral one: what should be done long term about a boy who was born to a heroin-addled mother, raised in a house steeped in violence and, by all accounts, is sporadically consumed by uncontrollable rage.
"The thing is, eventually he'll be out there … so we need to help this kid," said his attorney, public defender Matthew Hardy.
Jeffrey Hall, the boy's father, was a leader in a budding neo-Nazi organization known as the National Socialist Movement. His son, who is not being named by The Times because of his age, was charged as a juvenile and will not land in adult prison. His future is up to the judge, and no matter where the boy goes, he can be held only until he turns 23.
If Superior Court Judge Jean P. Leonard finds that the boy grasped the difference between right and wrong when he pulled the trigger, she could be send him to one of California's three juvenile detention centers. Those institutions are filled with young murderers, rapists and gang members. None currently house anyone younger than 14.
Hardy said that if his client is sent there, he would probably leave as either a corpse or a serial killer.
The judge also could sentence the boy to probation, placing him in foster care or with a family member and order him to undergo intensive counseling.
On the other hand, if Leonard rules that the boy didn't know the difference between right and wrong, the youngster would be released from juvenile hall and, most likely, into the custody of the county social service agency. A judge then will have the burden of deciding whether to place him with relatives or into the foster care system.
The boy's birth mother, who divorced Hall shortly after their son was born, has a checkered history. She is accused of neglecting the boy as a baby and using heroin and methamphetamine while pregnant, possibly planting the seeds to his violent, disturbed behavior, say psychologists who examined him.
His grandmother would be the most likely relative to take him in. She visits him weekly and says he has told her that he wants to come live with her.
She said she is torn. She still grieves for her son.
"I don't know that I could handle him," said the grandmother, Jo Ann Patterson. "I have a double interest in all this. I want justice for my son, but I don't want it at the cost of my grandson."
The grandmother and a psychologist who examined the child agree that the best option may be to place the youngster, at least at the outset, in an intensive juvenile rehabilitation facility where he can receive professional care. Those can include private facilities or juvenile centers run by the Riverside County Department of Probation. They can range from residential group homes to high-security compounds.
"Honestly, the best-case scenario we believe is that he gets some rehabilitation" while also going to school, Patterson said.
A probation officer will assess the boy's history and eventually make a recommendation to the judge about what's best for him, said Mark Hake, the county's interim chief probation officer.
"Our first goal is to reunify kids with a family member," Hake said. "You're looking at trying to gear them up and equip them to go out in the world on their own."
Anna Salter, a clinical psychologist from Wisconsin who testified for the prosecution, offered a relatively bright assessment of the boy's chances. In testimony last week, Salter rejected the defense argument that the boy, brutalized by his father and indoctrinated in the violent, hate-filled world of neo-Nazis, was too morally confused to know that killing was wrong.
She said the youngster's show of remorse offered a glimmer of hope. He is not a psychopath, a monster void of empathy or a conscience, she testified. "I do believe there is hope for [him]. I believe he wants to have a good life. I believe he will work hard to get one."
Killings committed by children under 14 are exceptionally rare, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Just 29 occurred nationwide in 2010. Killing a parent is rarer still.
"The research shows that kids who kill their parents typically don't go on to kill others," said Paul Mones, a Portland, Ore., attorney who has handled numerous cases involving children accused of killing a parent.
The vast majority of patricide cases are "situational homicides" committed against controlling fathers who abused multiple members of their families, he said. The young killers are focused on ending that abuse and rarely lash out at outsiders, he said.
Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Soccio, the prosecutor in the Hall case, agrees that there still is hope for the boy. But he argued in court that the boy's rehabilitation cannot begin until he acknowledges that he is guilty of his father's death.
"He's not a lost cause," Soccio said. "He had virtues in him that could be fostered. But that won't work … if we minimize, if we justify the murder."[email protected]