Well this is heartbreaking. In Fairfax County, Virginia, a twelve-year-old boy attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge over the interstate and landed on a car driven by a twenty-two-year-old. One law forum has already begun to discuss the case in the context of juvenile and criminal law. If this tragic event had happened in Tennessee, what is the chance that the child would be charged as an adult and found guilty of murder?
It is extremely low. First, the case would likely never get to criminal court. For a juvenile charged with crime(s), there has to be a special proceeding before the child is transferred to adult court. See T.C.A. § 37-1-134. At the transfer proceeding, the juvenile court has to find probable cause that the interests of the community require that the child be put under legal restraint or discipline. In making this determination, the court shall consider, among other matters:
- The extent and nature of the child’s prior delinquency records;
- The nature of past treatment efforts and the nature of the child’s response thereto;
- Whether the offense was against person or property, with greater weight in favor of transfer given to offenses against the person;
- Whether the offense was committed in an aggressive or premeditated manner;
- The possible rehabilitation of the child by use of procedures, services, and facilities currently available to the court in this state; and
- Whether the child’s conduct would be a criminal gang offense if committed by an adult.
At first glance, it may seem that these factors weigh towards adult court. However, consider the circumstances. Was the child being aggressive? Towards himself but not others. Was his act premeditated? The child premeditated an offense, i.e., suicide, but not the offense committed, i.e., murder. Finally, the child’s age and the fact that the child was attempting to commit suicide indicate that rehabilitation is likely.
For argument’s sake, however, let’s assume the child was in adult court. What are his chances of being convicted of murder? First degree murder requires:
- A premeditated and intentional killing of another;
- A killing of another committed in the perpetration of or attempt to perpetrate any first degree murder, act of terrorism, arson, rape, robbery, burglary, theft, kidnapping, aggravated child abuse, aggravated child neglect, rape of a child, aggravated rape of a child or aircraft piracy; or
- A killing of another committed as the result of the unlawful throwing, placing or discharging of a destructive device or bomb.
T.C.A. § 39-13-202. Neither (2) nor (3) apply. (1) doesn’t apply either because the child didn’t intend to kill another. Of course, that assumes that the child didn’t intend to take someone with him. Perhaps, he planned to suicide and kill another person. Still, is a jury really going to believe that a twelve-year-old child distraught enough to jump off of a bridge was also thinking about timing his jump to kill an innocent person? Probably not.
So, what about second degree murder? Would the child be convicted of that? Second degree murder requires:
- A knowing killing of another; or
- A killing of another that results from the unlawful distribution of any Schedule I or Schedule II drug, when the drug is the proximate cause of the death of the user.
T.C.A. § 39-13-210. (2) doesn’t apply. It also seems that (1) doesn’t apply either. Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-11-106 defines knowing to mean that the person is aware that the conduct is reasonably certain to cause the result. Was the child aware that jumping off of a bridge over an interstate is reasonably certain to cause the death of another? Maybe? I guess if the interstate is crowded one could infer that it is reasonably certain that jumping off of the bridge will kill someone else. But, even on a crowded interstate, one could hit the front of a car, the back of a car, empty seats, etc. And once again, the child is twelve and suicidal. I still think that it’s unlikely that a jury would convict the child.
Further, the child would have a strong insanity defense. See T.C.A. § 39-11-501. An insanity defense requires that the defendant, at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, was unable to appreciate the nature or wrongfulness of his acts because of a severe mental disease or defect. Now normally, it takes a pretty severe case for the insanity defense to be successful. For example, one successful case had a defendant who believed that President Kennedy was alive and behind 9/11. See State v. Kennedy, 152 S.W.3d 16 (Tenn. Crim. App. 2004), appeal denied (Tenn. 2004). While the child may not be that delusional, there is still a good chance that he did not appreciate the wrongfulness of his acts because of his age and suicidal state.
Based on the foregoing, it’s highly unlikely that the child would be tried as an adult and found guilty of murder.
Finally, it may seem extreme to debate the likelihood that this child is charged as an adult and convicted of murder. However, he certainly wouldn’t be the first twelve-year-old charged as an adult: see here, here, and here.