Two flags dangle from a banister into the middle of a living room in a modest two-story suburban home in Riverside — one of the far-flung exurbs of Southern California, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles.
Nailed next to an air-conditioning vent, the California state flag hangs next to a banner with a thick black swastika transposed over the traditional stars and stripes. Emblazoned on it are the initials “NSM,” the acronym for the National Socialist Movement. Nazis. A group known in the area for protesting Latino day-laborer sites with megaphones and hanging Nazi flags outside of a local synagogue.
Jeffrey Hall, 32, is asleep on a sofa underneath the flags. His second wife, 26-year-old Krista McCary, with whom he had been arguing, is asleep in the master bedroom upstairs. All five of their young children are asleep — except for one. At 4 a.m. that morning of May 1, 2011, 10-year-old Joseph, the eldest, silently paces down the carpeted staircase with a fully loaded Rossi .357 magnum revolver in his small hands. Joseph walks barefoot across the cream-colored floor tiles, still sticky with boot prints from yesterday’s meetup of regional NSM members. He sidesteps the empty Budweiser bottles scattered around the sofa and stands two feet away from his sleeping father. Joseph pulls the revolver’s hammer back, aims below his father’s ear, and fires. The Southwestern Regional Director of the National Socialist Movement’s brains are blown out by his 4-foot son.
The wall-shaking boom from the magnum load jars Krista awake, but she is slow getting to her feet. When she reaches the living room, she sees her husband motionless on the sofa, blood streaming from a dark hole on the side of his shaved head. Joseph reemerges from his bedroom to where he had retreated with the gun, walks halfway down the stairs, and stops.
“I shot Dad,” Joseph says flatly.
“Why?” she asks.
Joseph does not answer as Krista rushes to make a screeching 911 call. The emergency operator can hear Joseph’s 9-year-old sister loudly sobbing in the background.
Hours after Joseph was arrested for killing his father, he would tell police he didn’t think he would be “in trouble” because of similar circumstances depicted 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.”
Since 1976, fewer than three dozen children under the age of 12 have been convicted of murdering a parent. The vast majority of children who commit parricide are over the age of 16; of the cases since 1976, 75% have been instances of boys killing their father. Before Joseph, the most recent incident occurred in 2008, when an 8-year-old boy in Arizona shot his father and his father’s roommate at point-blank range, reloaded his gun, then shot them again.
Children who kill a parent typically fall into three groups, according to Kathleen M. Heide, Ph.D., a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida. One is severely mentally ill children who typically do not go to trial because they are considered unfit to stand trial. The second, a favorite of the tabloids, is the dangerously antisocial child. The last group, the one Joseph’s attorney would argue he belonged to, is that of a severely abused child who is pushed beyond all limits and cannot see another way out.
“Over time, the violence in the home escalates, and these individuals become increasingly stressed,” Heide has said. “They kill the abusive parent because they are terrified that they or other family members will be seriously harmed or killed.”
There’s the case of an 8-year-old boy from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. The boy came upon his father beating his mother. He stabbed his father in the back with an eight-inch kitchen knife. The boy was cleared of wrongdoing because the murder was deemed “justifiable.”
Both sides agree on the substantive facts: Joseph killed his father while he slept by discharging a firearm into his head. What Joseph’s fate rests on is whether the young boy knew right from wrong when he pulled the trigger. Not that he was insane — but rather if, at the moment of the shooting, he thought it was the right thing to do to kill an abusive father who was threatening more violence against the family.
At the beginning of the trial last October, Joseph’s defense team argued that Joseph had been systematically abused — physically, emotionally, and possibly sexually — leaving him incapable of grasping concepts like right vs. wrong, empathy, and death. “This is an all-American story about child abuse,” Joseph’s juvenile public defender, Matt Hardy, said in his opening remarks. “What are we to expect from the brain of an abused 10-year-old?”
The prosecution insisted that Jeffrey did not abuse Joseph. Though Child Protective Services investigated the Hall family 23 times, no abuse could ever be substantiated; they argued that Joseph’s horrific act of violence was “inevitable” because of Joseph’s long-documented violent behavior. Joseph’s own grandmother, a retired schoolteacher, said in a television interview that she knew her 10-year-old grandson was capable of murder; she just thought “it would happen later.”
The prosecution claimed that Jeffrey, in spite of his political beliefs, was a family man, a loving father who repeatedly tried to get help for his severely disturbed son. And while the defense argued that the young boy had been conditioned with the notion that violence was an appropriate response to conflict, the prosecutor discounted Jeffrey’s Nazi beliefs and activities as immaterial to the murder.
On Jan. 14, 2013, Judge Jean P. Leonard ruled for the prosecution and found Joseph guilty of murder in the second degree. He will be sentenced this week. In light of his conviction, the law now sees Joseph as a murderer legally responsible for the crime he committed.
But his conviction raises more harrowing moral questions that are not easily answered in or outside of a courtroom: What drives a 10-year-old to murder? Does Joseph bear less of the blame if he was physically abused? What if he was not abused but just neglected? What of the other thousands of children who have case files, the ones who are ritually tortured by their caretakers but do not kill? Is the only difference between them and Joseph the easy access to firearms? Or was Joseph condemned before he was even born, marinating inside a womb basted with methamphetamines and heroin?
Even if he is not considered psychotic, could the act of murder by a 10-year-old be anything other than a sign of some sort of mental illness? Or was he simply a bad seed predestined to burst into blood like his grandmother predicted?
And this is to say nothing of Jeffrey Hall himself, the man who, hours before his murder, sat on the carpeted steps of his home, reading excerpts from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf to 30 other National Socialist Movement militants as Joseph and his younger sisters drifted in and out of the room. In the end, what real individual responsibility can be assigned to any child forced to lead the life imposed on Joseph? What chance of a normal life did he ever have?
Indeed, if a court of law has fatefully determined Joseph’s legal responsibility in this murder, who determines the greater failures of family and society that made him one? No adult in Joseph’s life — nobody in his family, no teacher, no school administrator, no counselor, no social worker, no neighbor — had the compassion or practical foresight or moral courage to extricate Joseph from his toxic influences, including the ones inside his head.
Beyond the judicial interpretations, then, looms the much greater question of societal responsibility. At a moment when the national dialogue is dominated by the issue of gun violence and mental health, why was everybody MIA on the case of Joseph Hall as he was maturing into a 10-year-old murderer?
A stone-cold addict, Joseph’s biological mother Leticia reportedly sucked up booze and smoked heroin and methamphetamines throughout her pregnancy with Joseph. Within three months of Joseph’s birth in 2000, Child Protective Services (CPS) launched an investigation into his care. The couple had brought Joseph to the hospital for an eye infection. An argument erupted between the two in the hospital, and Jeffrey shoved Leticia against a wall while she cradled the infant, a hospital worker reported. With no visible marks on Joseph, the couple retained custody of their son.
Days later, Jeffrey and Leticia filed for divorce, and Leticia was granted temporary custody of Joseph. However, they continued to see each other, and in 2001, Jeffrey and Leticia had another child, Joseph’s younger sister, whom we will identify as “Cindy.”
CPS launched three more investigations for general neglect and for Leticia’s association with drug users. Sometime in 2002, Joseph, then 2, was seen wandering around the streets of his mother’s subdivision, alone, in the wee hours of the morning.
In 2003, things start to get really grim: Leticia shacks up with a new boyfriend, Wesley, and gives birth to twins. The twins are diagnosed with “failure to thrive” (malnutrition, growth deficiency, persistent vomiting or diarrhea), a syndrome that often afflicts infants who are abused or neglected by their caretaker. Joseph tells his grandmother and father that Wesley has been touching both him and Cindy inappropriately, according to CPS records, although no sexual abuse was ever substantiated.
Another CPS report from when Joseph was 3 indicates that he was found with a swollen lip and that Cindy, then 2, was wearing a tube top, body glitter, nail polish, and makeup. CPS investigated Leticia’s house and found broken windows, maggots crawling inside soiled diapers, and spoiled food in the kitchen. CPS substantiated that Leticia and Wesley have been emotionally abusing Joseph and Cindy, and Jeffrey is granted full custody.
Joseph and Cindy continue to have visits with Leticia and Wesley until Joseph, now 4, tells his father that Leticia touched his penis and Wesley put his penis in Joseph’s mouth. At Jeffrey’s behest, CPS launches yet another investigation. Leticia and Wesley vanish. Social workers make calls and visit their homes, but the two have skipped town. Leticia disappears from Joseph’s life entirely for the next six years.
Now a first-grader with dishwater-blond hair, a pronounced lisp, and a hyperactive personality, Joseph, according to school reports, is unmanageable. He lashes out at teachers, screams for no reason in the middle of class, runs out of the classroom, jumps on desks, and freely uses profanity. He threatens other students. He kicks his teachers. Joseph’s inability to do basic schoolwork qualifies him for special-needs services provided by the school. A few times a week, an adult aide sits with Joseph during class to keep him calm and on task. An individualized education plan is developed for him. The plan is abandoned within a year after the school kicks Joseph out for ongoing violent behavior. All this according to school reports submitted into trial evidence.
By second grade, Joseph’s behavior grows even more volatile. When asked to stop poking other students with a pencil, he grabs a phone and tries to choke his teacher with the cord. At home Joseph set two fires to a trash can, according to legal documents. His stepmother, Krista, saw him try to hurt his younger siblings. In 2009, CPS visited the Hall household once again after Joseph came to school with a welt on his eyebrow. Joseph told the social worker that Krista tied his hands and feet together with rope and tripped him down a flight of stairs for going outside when she told him not to.
By his 10th birthday, Joseph had been out kicked out of nine schools. Most children Joseph’s age would be preparing to start their first year as a sixth-grader; Joseph was barely reading at a fourth-grade level. (Officials at Riverside Unified School District psychological and special education services refused to return BuzzFeed’s multiple requests for interviews.) By 2010, Joseph was enrolled in home school, where his stepmother would be responsible for giving Joseph up to four hours of instruction a day.
Meanwhile, his father, who had joined the Nazi movement two years earlier, assumed different educational responsibilities.
“My son was able to operate a Gen-1 night vision, infrared scope,” Jeffrey boasted to a convention of NSM members in Pemberton, New Jersey, two weeks before his death. (Just moments before Jeffrey began speaking that night, he was in a street brawl with a group of anarchists who were picketing outside the NSM’s rented church conference room. Jeffrey and others took the metal chairs they were sitting on, ran outside, and began to smash them against the instigating anarchists.)
The sort of racism that exists in downwardly mobile middle-class California suburbs like Riverside — where the housing crisis hit like a neutron bomb — has a different flavor than the Dixie-fried prejudice of the South. Here, racism is born more of economic friction, with minorities seen as a threat to scarce jobs.
“There isn’t that much to go around in suburbs like Riverside,” says Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Potok tracks hate groups, especially ones like the NSM, whose numbers have been on the rise since the election of Obama in 2008 (the same year Jeffrey joined the cause). “And when people see what little they have being ‘taken’ by other people who look different from them,” he says, “there is a more spontaneous rage.”
The NSM is made up of roughly 400 to 500 members, most of whom do not openly acknowledge that they donate $10 a month to a neo-Nazi organization, according to Potok. When rallies or pickets are held, typically only a dozen members attend. When they are in groups, people will give only their first name or choose a pseudonym. So when someone like Jeffrey Hall offers to open his home for monthly meetings, wave a swastika-emblazoned flag at anti-Obama rallies, and heckle day laborers with a megaphone on street corners while dressed in an SS uniform, he draws a lot of attention.
In 2008, when Jeffrey first joined the NSM, he was an out-of-work plumber living in his mother’s house with his wife and four children in the university district of Riverside. His mother, JoAnn Patterson, would tell 60 Minutes that Jeffrey joined the NSM because he was frustrated by the recession. The Associated Press reported that Hall joined shortly after he claimed a relative by marriage was killed by an illegal immigrant in a hit-and-run accident. The details of Jeffrey’s own upbringing remain opaque beyond allegations that Jeffrey had witnessed his father abusing his mother.
Jeffrey was a big guy, at 6 feet 3 inches, with a skull and a crucifix tattooed on the back of his head. Despite Jeffrey’s intimidating physical appearance, many within the NSM found him to be warm and gregarious, says Jeff Schoep, Commander of the NSM, from his headquarters in Detroit. Jeffrey quickly shot up through the ranks and in 2009 was appointed Southwestern States Regional Director. “We don’t barter for positions in this organization,” Schoep says. “You earn rank and title. He was a frontline guy. Ready to fight the Reds and anyone else who gave us shit.”
Schoep claims that before he made Jeffrey Southwestern director, he checked him out fully. “The NSM is not a harbor for child-abusers, wife-beaters, and junkies,” he says. (Although, according to Potok, Schoep pleaded guilty in aiding and abetting a burglary.) “We had several members who spent the night at Jeffrey’s house and spent time around him and the kids, they all thought he was a very devoted father, and I still believe he was.” Schoep says that there were several times when he would call Jeffrey and the young father would be out with his children at the park “or pushing his daughter on a swing.”
Jeffrey threw himself into the Nazi movement with the glee of a teenager who has discovered his new favorite band. He often called and emailed Schoep with ideas for rallies and public demonstrations. It was Jeffrey who suggested starting border patrols along the California-Mexico border.
After one nocturnal excursion, Jeffrey asked Schoep for his home address so he could send him “treasures” he found along the border. Later that week, Schoep received a box filled with discarded backpacks and water bottles from migrants. “He had a weird sense of humor,” Schoep recalls fondly.
Neither Jeffrey nor Krista were employed at the time of the killing. In 2008, Jeffrey started drinking heavily, according to court documents. When Jeffrey’s drinking got out of control, the children would go to the master bedroom with Krista and lock the door. CPS investigated Jeffrey for his drinking and suspected drug use, and they found an exploded whiskey still he built in the kitchen, but somehow concluded the children faced no imminent danger.
As Joseph’s condition worsened, Jeffrey was ever more preoccupied with his Nazi activities. On a sunny October day in 2009, Jeffrey, dressed in an all-black SS uniform, led a public demonstration against a day-laborer site in downtown Riverside, chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” The amount of counter protesters were triple that of NSM’s. The NSM members vigorously taunted the crowd and shouted, “Sieg heil You have all the natural resources, just man up and go home. You were defeated in the Mexican-American war.”
A fight erupted between members of a Chicano group and the NSM. “This is the violence we’re protesting against — you’re animals!” Jeffrey shouted. “This is who you are. You need to concentrate on your own homeland. White power! White power! Just be happy you have the freedom here to do what you do for now.”
In 2010, Jeffrey ran for the Riverside municipal water board. He attended no forums, posted no signs. He gave one interview where he affirmed his support of an “all-white nation.” His name appeared on the November ballot with his Nazi party affiliation. He received roughly 30% of the vote, with over 8,000 ballots cast in his favor.
It wasn’t until 2010 that someone finally demanded Joseph be taken out of the Nazi home. Ironically, the demand came from Leticia, who had been absent from his life for six years. Filing for full custody of Joseph and Cindy, Leticia stated in her brief, “Jeffrey Hall is currently president in the neo-Nazi group and I’m really scared of what will happen to my kids.”
The woman who allegedly subjected her son to prenatal drug exposure and who fled the state after her boyfriend was accused of sexually molesting Joseph wound up the only adult on record calling for him to be released from a home full of Nazi uniforms, hate speech, and weapons. Yet Riverside’s family court found that Jeffrey’s leadership within the NSM was not grounds for removing the children. Leticia’s request was denied.
At the same time, a chain of events began to unfold that led directly to the murder. In early 2011, Jeffrey began an affair with a woman named Sam, according to both the prosecutor and public defender. He and Krista began to argue constantly after she discovered the affair. Sam, also a member of the NSM, lived in the Midwest and was in constant contact with Jeffrey by phone and email. Krista sent Joseph and Cindy on “spying missions” to eavesdrop on Jeffrey’s conversations with Sam, according to public defender Matt Hardy. Jeffrey repeatedly threatened to leave the family to be with Sam. During an argument on Easter Sunday in 2011, shortly before the killing, Jeffrey threw a glass at Krista and allegedly cut her with the broken glass, Joseph told his defense team.
A week later, on April 30, 2011, Jeffrey hosted the monthly NSM meeting and barbecue at his house. The family put on a wholesome front as they served up hamburgers and hot dogs to Jeffrey’s Nazi comrades. Joseph’s grandmother, JoAnn, attended the gathering. “I wanted to make sure it was OK for my grandkids to be there,” JoAnn would later tell 60 Minutes. “And I had a great time! It looked like any barbecue in any backyard in America.” After Jeffrey read an excerpt from Mein Kampf and reported on new NSM business, he and his comrades played drinking games and downed whiskey shots. During the gathering, Jeffrey gave Joseph an SS belt buckle.
Jeffrey and Krista started to argue after the barbecue. Jeffrey threatened to turn off all the smoke detectors and set the house on fire while Krista and the children were asleep, Joseph told his defense-appointed psychologist. That allegation was also corroborated by Krista and by Joseph’s younger sister, Cindy.
Jeffrey left to give a fellow NSM member a ride home, and Krista put on a “Yogi Bear” movie for the children before bed. That night, both sides stipulate, Jeffrey sent Krista three profanity-laced text messages telling her he was leaving her, he wanted her out of the house by the time he returned, and that she needed to find a new place to live. Jeffrey returned home and fell asleep on the couch.
Dispatcher: 911 emergency…
Krista McCary: My son shot my husband, I need an ambulance, he’s bleeding! [Loud sobbing in the background. Young girl’s voice says, “Daddy!”]
Dispatcher: How old is your son?
Krista: [Gasps] Ten.
Dispatcher: How old is your son?
Krista: Ten! Oh god!
When the police arrive at the split-level house on Lauder Court in the early morning of May 1, Krista tells detectives Greg Rowe and Roberta Hopewell she shot her husband. When they press Krista on the details of the shooting, she quickly recants. She would later testify that she initially lied to police in order to protect Joseph.
“The conditions of the apartment were filthy and not sanitary for the four children and infant to live in,” Rowe wrote in his official report. “There were dirty clothing on the floors everywhere. You couldn’t walk through the upstairs rooms without stepping on clothing on the floor. The bedrooms smelled like urine. The bedroom mattresses, pillows and blankets were stained and soiled.”
A number of uniformed officers arrive to remove the children from the house and transfer them to the Magnolia Police Station. The officers sweep the house. They find an empty holster in the closet of the master bedroom and the murder weapon underneath Joseph’s bed. Officer Robert Monreal overhears Cindy ask Joseph why he didn’t shoot his father in the stomach like he planned to.
Joseph talks nonstop in the back of this police car. He asks the officers if his father is dead. “He asked me about things like, do people get more than one life, things like that,” Officer Michael Foster testified. “He wanted to know if he was dead or if he just had injuries.” Joseph keeps talking:
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…”
The officers tell Joseph his father is dead and not coming back. Joseph begins to get agitated.
“My dad’s dead,” he says. “He’s dead. He’s dead. I can’t believe what I did. Oh, I just can’t stop thinking about him dying. Oh, my dad.” He then asks the officers if he can stay at the police station because he’s afraid he will kill his whole family.
Joseph: “It’s all my fault.”
Officer: “No it’s not.”
Joseph: “Then whose fault is it?”
Inside the police station, Joseph sits in the interrogation room with a blanket on his lap and a McDonald’s meal on the table. Krista strokes his hand as Detective Hopewell interviews him. Joseph tells Hopewell that he was “tired” of his dad hitting him and his mom. “I didn’t want to do it,” Joseph tells Hopewell. “It’s just that he hurts us.”
He says his dad is cheating on his mother and he’s afraid if there would be a divorce, he would have to live with his father. “That really scared me,” Joseph says. He tells Hopewell that Jeffrey threated to kill the family. “He hates everybody, even my baby sister. When someone says that about someone I really care about, I get really mad.” Every day, Joseph says, he and his father “are hating each other more and more.”
Joseph tells Hopewell that the night of the killing he woke up in his bedroom — “crazy in my thoughts. I think that if I shoot him then maybe he wouldn’t be able to hurt us… I started thinking I should end this father-son thing.” Joseph goes across the hall into the master bedroom while Krista is asleep and takes the .357 revolver off the closet’s lowest shelf. “I took the gun, aimed at his ear, and shot him. I didn’t want anyone to think I did it on purpose. I wanted it to look like an accident.”
Hopewell asks Joseph what he thought would happen to his father after he shot him. “I thought he was going to be dead,” Joseph responds, “and what’s why I felt worried for him.” Once Hopewell leaves the room, Joseph asks Krista if they can start making plans for his birthday in June. She tells him to eat his McDonald’s and think of something fun they can do in the evening together. Joseph says he’s worried about dreaming about the killing when he goes to sleep. He says he thinks he will miss his dad.
“Yeah. I miss him,” Krista says.
“If he’s dead,” Joseph adds.
We, as members of society, are allowed to legally kill, under special circumstances. One of those is known in legal terms as imperfect self-defense, the honest but unreasonable belief that deadly force is necessary to counter an attack on a person’s life, or an attack thought to be imminent.
Joseph’s public defender, Matt Hardy, argued at trial that his 10-year-old defendant, when he fired the shot point-blank into his father’s head, believed he and his family were in imminent danger of the house being burned down, of the family being broken up, and of his being forced to go live with his father and a new mother. “At the time of the shooting,” Hardy told the court in his closing argument, “he did not know of the wrongfulness. He thought he was justified in shooting his dad.”
Hardy, a self-described “Mick from Detroit who still believes in Catholic social teachings of justice,” intended to retire before he was handed Joseph’s case. “I think this kid deserves a fighting chance.” Hardy agued his client was “conditioned by a life of abuse, neglect, and isolation to view violence as a proper and justified way to solve his problems.”
During the trial, Hardy brought in Dr. Robert Geffner, a San Diego–based psychologist with expertise in family violence and neuropsychology, to evaluate Joseph. When Geffner and his team of training fellows and doctoral student interns interviewed Joseph for 12 hours before the trial in the Riverside youth correctional facility, Joseph was “literally bouncing off the walls,” Geffner testified.
“He’s on the table, under the table, jumping off the table. Won’t stop shaking his legs and hands. Every word out of his mouth is a cuss word,” Geffner says after the trial. Joseph had told Geffner that he wanted to kill Nazis because he didn’t like them. “Joseph reported that his father would have him and his sisters go to rallies and listen to music supporting their ideas, which upset him. He was very adamant that NSM views were harmful,” Geffner said in his official court report on Joseph. Joseph tells Geffner he wants to be cop when he gets out of juvenile detention.
Geffner diagnosed Joseph with attention deficit disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, conduct disorder, and learning disabilities. Geffner testified Joseph was developmentally delayed and “unable to reflect on outcomes.” He characterized Joseph’s thinking as rigid and literal, incapable of thinking through complex concepts. Geffner asserted that Joseph’s mental impairment and preoccupation with violence came from his father’s neglect and abuse.
“There’s a misconception that neglect isn’t as bad as abuse,” Geffner says. “With abuse, you can point to a broken bone and there is some logic in it: That bone will heal. A parent’s neglect can cause much deeper lasting psychological trauma because it’s irrational behavior the child cannot make sense of.”
Geffner believes that the attempts at intervention by CPS and various school systems did more to damage Joseph than help him. “A social worker comes out to visit the home or him at school because of the abuse, and Joseph sees virtually nothing happening. So one of the things that happens to a child in that situation is what’s called learned helplessness — it seems that nothing can be done. This forms all sorts of internal problems: psychological, guilt, feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, hopelessness.”
So did Joseph know it was wrong to kill his father? “Right and wrong is a legal interpretation,” Geffner says. “In psychology we can tell if someone understands concepts, and it was clear from our evaluation that this boy did not have that ability. He did not understand what death was in terms of consequences.”
Geffner’s testimony proved, Hardy said, that Joseph did not have the neurological skills to make clear decisions and that he was “never given a chance to develop a conscience.” Jeffrey’s beatings of his son and wife, his NSM propaganda, his taking his son to the border to potentially shoot at migrants, and the inept interventions of outsiders all led to Joseph’s belief that violence was an acceptable solution to his problems, Hardy told the court. Though it may be a “simplistic, illogical, and brain-damaged” decision, at the moment Joseph pulled the trigger, he did not believe it was wrong.
(In August 2011, Krista pleaded guilty to felony charges of child endangerment for leaving deadly weapons unsecured around children. She’s currently free on probation.)
“People have a lot of sympathy for a child who is a victim of abuse,” says Geffner. “But all that understanding and sympathy disappears when a child becomes abusive.”
The Riverside County District Attorney’s office has earned a reputation for taking a hard line on juvenile crime, and Joseph was to be no exception. “I think Joseph would have killed his father even if he had been a member of the Peace and Freedom Party,” Deputy District Attorney Mike Soccio tells me.
Soccio explains that there was some sentiment that Joseph should not have been prosecuted because of the boy’s tragic life circumstances. But his office could not let a homicide go unanswered. “A lot of people wish we would have said, ‘Oh, he’s only 10 and his dad is a Nazi, let it go.’ Then the next time it would be, ‘He’s 11 and his mom is Republican.’ We just can’t overlook crime.”
The prosecution argued that Joseph knew killing his father was wrong and that the shooting was just the latest and most horrific incident in a long line of violent outbursts. Unlike the snake-pit home environment described by the defense, Joseph and Jeffrey’s relationship was characterized by Soccio as “good but conflicted.” Soccio said the Hall family was put in desperate circumstances by Joseph’s constant violent behavior, and Jeffrey’s spankings and whippings of Joseph qualify as abuse only in the “broadest sense.”
“The question is,” says Dr. Anna Salter, the expert psychological witness for the prosecution, “when did Joseph’s violent behavior begin? He was violent long before his dad joined the Nazi party. The most obvious variable is not the most important.”
Salter, a psychologist specializing in trauma and adolescent sexual offenders, testified that Joseph’s dysfunctional personality and inability to control his impulses are likely due to Leticia’s prenatal drug use and her neglect and abuse of Joseph before he turned 3. Salter concedes that Jeffrey’s involvement in the Nazi party may have been “emotionally abusive because it tells you to hate everyone, but that wasn’t the source of Joseph’s aggression.”
Based on her evaluation of Joseph, Salter testified that the boy was rational during the shooting and aware of its wrongfulness. “I looked at the statements he made after the first 24 hours of the killing,” she says. “He was rational, he did not appear to be delusional, he did not appear to be psychotic. He made a plan to kill his father, and he did.”
According to the prosecution, Joseph’s condition was not a result of institutional failures, as the defense claims. “Public and private schools are not set up to manage a child like Joseph, who needs to be restrained repeatedly,” Salter says. “From the age of 3 to 10, he was systematically violent and unmanageable in an outpatient setting.”
As to the 23 investigations of the Hall family conducted by CPS, Soccio says, “Joseph didn’t fall through the cracks; there was no crack that fit Joseph.”
“CPS didn’t fail this kid, society failed this family,” adds Sylvia Deporto, assistant director of Riverside County Department of Public Social Services. “That kid shouldn’t have had access to a gun to kill his father. This is not a CPS issue. This is not a school issue. When kids or people with mental illness have access to firearms, that’s a societal issue.”
It’s a godlessly cold morning in Riverside on the day Judge Leonard is to read her verdict. The line to enter the courthouse snakes onto the sidewalk. A man preaches Old Testament gospel to the line of defendants, plaintiffs, and various traffic violators. Outside the courtroom, Joseph’s grandmother JoAnn, a woman in her sixties with dyed auburn hair, stands apart from the dozen local press reporters chattering in the neon-lit corridor. Oversize sunglasses obscure her face. A few other relatives huddle around her; one rubs her back as they wait to enter the court. At 9:00 a.m., JoAnn is ushered into the small courtroom of Department 54. The press is seated in the jury box.
Joseph, once plump, now looks spindly. The rectangular black-and-white square eyeglasses he has been wearing since entering juvenile hall accent the hollowness of his cheeks. His dust-colored hair, long and thin, is parted down the side and slicked back. Tiny shudders and twitches ripple through his shoulders and torso as he sits behind the defense table.
During his first year in juvenile hall, Joseph has been pepper-sprayed by correctional officers for refusing to go his room and repeatedly calling his peers “bitches” and “niggers.” His psychotropic medication has been changed several times, causing his behavior to ricochet from hyperactive to half-conscious. (He fell asleep in court when the interrogation tape was being played.) Midway through this trial, it was brought to the attention of the court that correctional guards discovered long strips of torn bedsheet in Joseph’s cell, causing concern that Joseph intended to hang himself or others. Yet despite the first tumultuous 20 months in lockup, Joseph is actually reading at his grade level.
Judge Leonard reads Joseph’s verdict, guilty of murder in the second degree, from her prepared statements: “This was not a complex killing… [Joseph] thought about the idea and shot his father. The minor knew what he did was wrong.”
Joseph exhibits no obvious emotion. He blinks and asks his attorney if he can visit with his grandmother after the court adjourns. “There can be no happy ending for our family,” Joseph’s grandmother says after the verdict.
Leaving the courtroom, Hardy says that the verdict did not come as a surprise: “This case was decided before we even began trial.”
Soccio approaches Joseph as he sits silently at the defense table and crouches down next to him. “I want you to know that neither me or my office has anything against you or dislike you,” he says. “You know you made a bad decision with what you did with your father but I don’t see you as a monster.” Soccio goes on to tell Joseph that he is going to face some “rough times” in lockup and he shouldn’t “try to be badass” because that’s what some people might expect from him. He tells Joseph, “If there’s any way I can help you, please ask for my help.”
“OK, thank you,” Joseph replies flatly.
Leaving the courthouse, Hardy was asked what the best-case scenario would be for his client. “The top treatment in the finest facility — what the rich kids get. If he goes to the department of juvenile justice, he’ll come out a gangbanger or a serial killer.”
On Feb. 15, 2013, Joseph will be sentenced. He will mostly likely be incarcerated, as Hardy fears, at a DJJ facility. Or he could wind up in a high-security residential psychiatric facility out of state. In any case, it’s now all in the hands of the same system that supervised these first 12 years of his life. Now, he will be taken out of circulation for a decade and, at age 23, will be dropped back into society for the rest of us to deal with.