By Dana Feldman
RIVERSIDE, California (Reuters) - A boy accused of murdering his neo-Nazi father when he was 10 years old went on trial in California on Tuesday, with prosecutors portraying the child as violent and troubled and a defense lawyer saying he acted to protect his family.
Both sides agree that Joseph Hall, now 12, shot his father, Jeffrey Hall, at near point-blank range on May 1, 2011. He is being tried in juvenile court and could be sent to a juvenile facility until age 23.
The case in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, has drawn attention for Jeffrey Hall's neo-Nazi associations and for the rare circumstance of such a young child accused of murdering a parent.
Kathleen Heide, a criminology professor who has studied crimes by children, said that of 8,000 murders of parents by offspring over the last 32 years, only 16 were carried out by defendants age 10 or younger.
"It's very rare," said Heide of the University of South Florida. "If you talk about kids killing in general it's still very rare. What makes this even more unusual is that it's a 10-year-old first of all, then (it) becomes even more remote when the 10-year-old allegedly killed his father."
Because Joseph Hall is a juvenile, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Jean Leonard, who is conducting the two-week trial, will not decide guilt or innocence, but make a finding of whether the allegations are true - a decision that hinges on the boy's understanding of right and wrong at the time.
"Joseph has had trouble all of his life. He's attacked teachers, tried to stab them and strangle them with cords. Every institution expelled him," Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Michael Soccio told the court in opening remarks.
"Jeffrey Hall was given full custody of Joseph and his sister. He tried to help him. His son had these issues long before he was a Nazi and (was) just a plumber," Soccio said, citing the boy's attention deficit disorder and impulsivity, and noting he had "a violent streak."
'CONDITIONED' TO RACISM AND VIOLENCE
The prosecutor, who displayed grisly photographs of the slain man showing a bullet wound above his left ear, said Joseph Hall knew that the gun was dangerous and had planned the crime, telling his sister about his intentions the day before.
"He understood that if he shot someone in the head, they'd be gone," Soccio said. "He knew what he did was wrong. He knew full well what that meant."
Riverside police officer Michael Foster, who was first on the scene that day, testified that Joseph Hall confessed to shooting his father and said he felt bad about it, worrying out loud that his sisters would be angry with him.
The boy, dressed in a purple knit shirt and wearing glasses, showed little reaction in court to the proceedings or the photographs of his dead father.
Riverside County Deputy Public Defender Matt Hardy, in his opening statement, focused on the boy's upbringing by a father with ties to the National Socialist Movement that had "conditioned him with racism and violence."
The defense attorney said Jeffrey Hall, 32, took his son to neo-Nazi rallies, and that child protective services had been called to the home 20 times.
"Joseph, for his own reasons, decided to kill his father, to protect himself and his family, to stop the violence and be a hero," he said.
Hardy said that on the night before the shooting, Jeffrey Hall had gone to a National Socialist Movement party and left the gathering with a woman, returning home at 3:30 a.m.
On the night before the killing, Hardy said, Jeffrey Hall sent a text message to his wife, Joseph Hall's stepmother, reading: "Bitch, get out of the house, I'm divorcing you."
The stepmother, 27-year-old Krista McCary, later testified that the boy was a difficult child who had issues in school, was sometimes violent and was known to lie a lot.
McCary said that when she visited Joseph in a juvenile detention facility following his arrest, he told her he had a "hate list" of people he wanted to kill when he was released.
(Writing and additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Stacey Joyce)