Kentucky 6-year-old tried for murder
By Andrea Tortora - The Cincinnati Enquirer
Sunday, March 05, 2000
Amid the steep hills of an eastern Kentucky
coal-mining town, two young boys argued over a piece of scrap iron.
They had planned to sell the metal to a junk dealer
for some pocket change. It was months before the stock market crash of
1929, yet the town of Paintsville was struggling.
The working-class residents earned their livings
pulling coal out of the valleys that later would bring forth such
famous country music singers as Crystal Gayle and Loretta Lynn, who
grew up there.
But on May 18, 1929, Carl Newton Mahan, 6, and
Cecil Van Hoose, 8, had a fight.
Cecil took the scrap of iron away from Carl,
slapping him in the face. According to articles in The Cincinnati
Enquirer back then, Carl ran away from Cecil, went home, and climbed
up on a chair. He took down his father's 12-gauge shotgun, which was
kept above the door.
Carl went back outside and shouted to Cecil, “I'm
going to shoot you!” Then he squeezed the trigger.
Carl became the youngest murder defendant in
Kentucky, probably in the country.
What happened next in many ways resembles what
happened last Tuesday in Michigan, where another child shot and killed
In Mount Morris Township, in eastern Michigan, a
first-grade boy shot his classmate, a 6-year-old girl.
The children apparently had fought on the
playground the day before. The girl, Kayla Rolland, had yelled at the
boy for spitting on his desk.
The boy brought to school a gun from a relative's
home. The boy, whom authorities won't identify, shot and killed Kayla.
Then he put the gun in his desk and went to the principal's office.
The events of the 1929 shooting in Paintsville
provide a glimpse into what may be in store for the Michigan case.
The same questions arise: Were the shooters
murderers? Did they know what they were doing? Can they be held
accountable for their tragic actions? If so, then how does society
mete out punishment to a first-grader?
In 1929 Paintsville, the answers seemed to come
Less than a week after Carl shot his friend, the
skinny 6-year-old with the cowlick was on trial for murder.
The boy told the court how he came to kill his
friend. Then, through the rest of the daylong trial, he lay on the
defense counsel's table and sometimes slept.
After fewer than 30 minutes of deliberations, a
jury convicted Carl of the lesser charge of manslaughter. The Johnson
County judge sentenced him to 15 years in reform school.
The boy was released to his parents on $500 bail.
A public outcry and legal appeals followed. Some
thought manslaughter wasn't enough. Others thought it was too much.
Finally, a Circuit Court judge set aside the
conviction and issued a “writ of prohibition” that prevented Carl from
being sent to reform school. The writ said the county judge had
exceeded his authority by allowing Carl to be tried criminally before
a jury. Normally, juvenile cases were decided by the county judge.
Newspapers of the time ran portrait-like photos of
young Carl, looking boyish in a suit and tie. One paper labeled him a
“convict” with an exclamation point. Another showed him in a tender
embrace on his mother's lap.
People across the country sent to Carl's family
letters of consolation and amazement at the sentence.
Kentucky's attorney general was asked to make a
final decision. A month after Carl was sentenced, the attorney general
announced that his review of the case was complete. He took no action,
allowing the boy to remain with his parents.
In the 71 years since the Paintsville case, states
have created extensive and complex juvenile crime codes. Psychologists
have created an industry out of studying child criminals.
Still, child experts and psychologists disagree
about whether the 6-year-old shooter is a killer or a victim.
They recognize the impact that emotional and
physical distress can have on a child's actions. But the concept of
criminal responsibility has changed since the 1920s, said Robert
Lilly, a sociology professor at Northern Kentucky University.
“The idea of holding someone else responsible for
criminal behavior was not very well developed 71 years ago,” Mr. Lilly
said. “Children were viewed much more as adults then.”
So if a child did it, the child was responsible.
Parents would not be held liable for a child's actions in the America
That philosophy is in stark contrast to the social
climate of 2000.
“We have a very narrow, rational, technical logic
now that you can be held responsible even if you didn't intend to do
it,” Mr. Lilly said. “That's why people cop a plea.”
In the Michigan shooting, prosecutors are calling
the 6-year-old shooter a victim of circumstance and of a failed social
system. The semiautomatic weapon he took to school had been left in
his temporary home by friends of the boy's uncle. Police also found
another stolen weapon and cocaine in the home.
Police have charged 19-year-old Jamelle James with
involuntary manslaughter in Kayla Rolland's death. Police accuse Mr.
James of waving the loaded pistol in front of the boy days before the
shooting and leaving the loaded gun in his bedroom.
The boy will not be charged. Instead, prosecutors
say, the child needs to be loved.
“At 6, children understand right from wrong but
they are very dependent on the adults around them to teach them the
right behavior,” said Dr. James Brush, a Cincinnati child
It is common law in the United States that children
under 7 are not held accountable for crimes. Between the ages of 6 and
8, experts say, there are critical changes in the way children think.
As children get older, they understand the concept
of rules. They develop a sense of fair play. They understand the
consequences of their actions, Dr. Brush said.
“A set of rules gets written on them inside, like
the Ten Commandments on stone,” he said.
A child's environment plays a large part in
creating that deeper understanding, and teaching them to control
actions to make something happen, rather than reacting to what goes on
around them, said Eddy Regnier, a child psychologist in Sarasota, Fla.
Dr. Regnier worked with 15-year-old T.J. Solomon,
who shot and injured six students at his Conyers, Ga., high school
“Children ages 6 and 7, the kinds that grow up in
middle-class homes, who are sheltered and protected, certainly don't
have a clue about the meaning of death,” Dr. Regnier said.
In the end, that's what Kentucky officials decided
about Carl Mahan. They reviewed the 1929 case and let Carl remain a
free person, growing up outside the confines of reform school.
Information about Carl's later life is sparse. He
moved to Jefferson County, and he died at the age of 35, in 1958.
The boy in Michigan will remain free, too. He was
Michigan officials decided the 6-year-old did not
understand what he did.
But his family will not stay intact.
The child's father is in jail on unrelated charges.
His mother was evicted from her home. The 6-year-old, his brother and
his sister are in the custody of a maternal aunt.
Carl Newton Mahan
The Carl Mahan appeal was the big story on The
Enquirer's front page on June 27, 1929.