SANTA ANA, Calif. — The blond boy was 10 when he put a gun to the head of his sleeping neo-Nazi father and pulled the trigger.
It was over in an instant for Jeff Hall, but sorting out the fate of his troubled son has been a 2½-year journey that approaches its final stage Friday in a hearing to determine where he’ll spend his teens and, possibly, his early adult years.
The judge hearing the case in a Riverside County courtroom must decide not how to punish a child for second-degree murder, but how to rehabilitate someone who grew up in an abusive home, attacked his elementary school teachers and was indoctrinated in the beliefs of white supremacy.
Attorneys have sparred for months over what is best for the boy.
He has been living in the county’s juvenile hall since the killing but spent about three months at a state youth detention center where he was evaluated to see whether a placement there could serve his needs. Several people from the state are expected to testify at the hearing.
In the meantime, the small child who scribbled on a notepad and looked bored during his trial as prosecutors displayed photos of his father’s blood-splattered body has grown into a gangly teenager who is more focused than ever before.
He attends class, gets regular therapy and has made progress in controlling the violent outbursts that got him kicked out of almost every school he attended. He has even, with time, won the affection of the prosecutor who got him convicted.
“I have grown attached to him in an odd way. I enjoy watching him grow and change but I am convinced he has done better in a quasi-military penal environment,” said Riverside County Chief Deputy District Attorney Michael Soccio. “He seems to like it, he knows what the rules are and what is expected and he is treated with dignity.”
That’s why Soccio believes the boy, now 13, would do best in the state’s juvenile justice system, where he would go to school and live in a dorm-like setting at a high-security facility for young offenders, possibly until age 23.
Defense attorneys, however, say the teen has serious emotional disabilities that the state isn’t equipped to handle. They want to see him placed in a residential treatment center, where security would be lighter and the therapy would be more intense.
Punam Patel Grewal, the boy’s defense attorney, said he would also be at risk in a state facility because of his father’s neo-Nazi beliefs.
“It is a very dangerous place for him. He’s got a lot of vulnerability here,” she said. “When he comes out at 23, we’ve got a huge problem.”
Murders by defendants as young as the one in Riverside are extremely rare and usually involve children who have mental health issues and have lived through extreme physical and psychological trauma, said Sarah Bryer, director of Washington, D.C.-based National Juvenile Justice Network.
“If the end goal is rehabilitation, then that youth’s mental health concerns are going to have to be front and center,” she said. “I think the judge has to ask the question, when this kid walks out — and this kid will walk out eventually — how is this kid going to be better?”
Hall’s killing attracted national attention when it happened on May 1, 2011 — and not just because of the defendant’s age.
Hall, an out-of-work plumber, was also a regional leader of the National Socialist Movement who organized neo-Nazi rallies at synagogues and day labor sites and had hosted a meeting for the group at his house the day before he died. Hall, 32, ran unsuccessfully for a water board in 2010 and alarmed voters with his white supremacist rhetoric.
Prosecutors said the boy shot his father behind the ear at point-blank range as he slept on the sofa after coming home from a night of drinking. The child took the .357-Magnum from his parents’ bedroom and later told police he was afraid he would have to choose between living with his father and his stepmother, who had been fighting and were headed for a divorce.
The boy’s stepmother initially told police she had killed her husband, but later recanted and said she was trying to protect her stepson. His sister testified that he told her of his plan the day before, while they were playing on a swing set.
During trial, the boy’s defense attorney portrayed him as a victim of both his father’s racist beliefs and of his violent upbringing.
The boy’s stepmother told authorities that Hall had hit, kicked and yelled at his son for being too loud or getting in the way. Hall and the boy’s biological mother had each accused the other of child abuse multiple times during a protracted custody dispute. Social service workers visited 20 times but never removed the boy or his siblings from the custody of Hall.
The child also had a history of being expelled from school for violent outbursts, starting at age 5 when he stabbed a teacher with a pencil on the first day of kindergarten. He also tried to strangle a teacher with a phone cord.