A California boy convicted of killing his abusive neo-Nazi father has allies in high places as he seeks a Supreme Court review of his case.
In a challenge to the state attorney general, and U.S. Senate candidate, Kamala Harris, human rights activists and child-abuse experts are rallying around the boy still known in court documents only as Joseph H. Everyone agrees that his early life in Riverside, California, was the stuff of nightmares.
“By all accounts, in his first 10 years, (Joseph) endured a sad, abusive and traumatic childhood, and was in turn a ‘difficult child,’ ” the California attorney general’s office acknowledged in a brief.
Nor is there any doubt that on May 1, 2011, Joseph shot his father, Jeffrey Hall, a leader in the Southern California branch of the National Socialist Movement. At the time, Joseph was 10 years old and the victim, his attorneys wrote, of “substantial mental and physical abuse at the hands of his parents and stepparents.”
This court has held repeatedly that decisions about children in the criminal justice system must be informed by a scientific understanding of how a child’s cognitive and decisionmaking capacities differ from those of an adult.
J. Scott Ballenger, attorney for Joseph H.
A serious dispute, though, arises over the police interview of Joseph. It’s a legal matter, California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu noted, that “likely affects hundreds of cases each year” involving juveniles waiving their rights in police custody.
In particular, the Joseph H. case gives the shorthanded Supreme Court a chance to clarify when juveniles can voluntarily and intelligently waive their rights against self-incrimination and to legal counsel, and when additional protections such as mandatory appointment of an attorney may be needed.
“We got involved with the case because it raises an important question,” Marsha L. Levick, attorney for the Juvenile Law Center, said Wednesday, adding that “Joseph H. is (a) case which requires us to rethink how we calibrate children’s rights under the Constitution.”
The Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center joined with the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth in filing an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to hear the case during the next term, which starts in October. Human Rights Watch and the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children filed similar briefs pressing the high court.
“Its guidance is urgently needed, and this case presents an excellent vehicle to provide it,” attorney J. Scott Ballenger wrote in Joseph H.’s initial petition.
A former clerk to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, now with the law firm Latham & Watkins, Ballenger is the lead counsel on Joseph H.’s high-powered appellate team.
The California attorney general’s office counters that while the issues raised may “warrant further consideration,” they do not need immediate Supreme Court attention.
Joseph H., whose future turns on how the legal arguments are resolved, is slated to remain in a California juvenile facility until he is 23. Exposed to his mother’s drug use while still a fetus, and to his father’s methamphetamine addiction as a child, he has developmental disabilities.
After he shot his sleeping father, Joseph told police his father had been beating him and his mother and had threatened to burn the house down while the family slept.
Before interviewing him for more than an hour, a detective told Joseph he had the right to remain silent.
“You know what that means?” the detective asked.
“Yes,” Joseph said. “It means I have the right to remain calm.”
The 10-year-old boy’s stepmother – the victim’s wife – remained present and continuously urged Joseph to answer the detective’s questions.
The big hurdle for Joseph’s attorneys arrives Sept. 29, when the eight current members of the Supreme Court meet to sort through upward of 2,000 petitions. Typically, fewer than 20 are granted during the so-called “long conference” held before the court’s term starts on the first Monday of October.
With most petitions routinely rejected, government lawyers often don’t bother formally responding. On April 28, the California attorney general’s office waived the state’s right to respond to the Joseph H. petition.
The move indicated that officials were confident the high court would follow the lead of a closely divided California Supreme Court and simply decline to hear the case.
The U.S. Supreme Court, though, subsequently asked California for a legal brief, suggesting that some justices were interested in the questions raised by Joseph’s attorneys and their various legal allies. Harris’ office responded last month.
“The state does not discount the importance or difficulty of the legal and policy issues identified by petitioner and his amici,” the California attorney general’s office wrote, adding that “those issues may well warrant further consideration, perhaps most appropriately in legislative rather than judicial forums.”