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Paul Mones

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Mones is a Portland, Ore., defense attorney who specializes in defending children who have killed their parents. He is the author of the 1992 book When a Child Kills. Here he discusses the challenges of defending parricide cases and why America fears its teenagers. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted Jan. 23, 2007.

What should we make of children who kill their parents?

Well, I think there's the old way to look at it, which is these are just kind of these recalcitrant, bad, evil kids. Kids have been killing their parents for years, and we didn't really look at why they did it. It was only really in the early '80s, when we started understanding that child abuse is so prevalent and has such a detrimental effect on children, that we started looking at the whys of kids who kill their parents. ...

They say [these are] heinous crimes.

Well, they are heinous crimes. When these homicides happen they tend to be some of the worst crime scenes you'll ever see. I mean, the kids sneak up on their parents, typically when they're sleeping, watching television. The last few cases I've had in the last year, the parents were in bed, they were reading, etc. And when they do it, there's not just one hit with a baseball bat or one shot; there's blood splatter all over the walls. These are horrific, horrific crime scenes.

Now, the term "heinous" may go to what they're talking about -- the nature of the kid; that the kid is a heinous person. I don't agree with that. These kids by and large are responding to typically horrific situations at home. The problem is, when you abuse a child and that child becomes an adolescent, there's a gamble that the parents don't realize they're doing. It's easy to abuse an infant; ... the infant really can't do anything in response to you. You start abusing a 10-, 11-, 12-, 15-, 16-year-old child, then you have to start worrying as a parent -- though parents never think about this -- about the reaction toward you. ...

These kids think that -- they're so depressed; they think their life is over; they see no way out. And when they kill through a confluence of circumstances, that's supposed to be unexpected. But if you look at their lives, it unfortunately follows a tragedy that is waiting to happen. ...

The problem is, child abuse ... is the perfect crime. It's the perfect crime because parents who do it seal their own protection, because they know the kid's typically, a, not going to fight back, and b, typically not [going to] report, because as bad as children get treated by their parents, that parent is still the caregiver; that parent still is the nourisher. And it's very difficult for the average human being to fight against that person, to rebel against that person. ...

Child abuse ... is the perfect crime. It's the perfect crime because parents who do it seal their own protection, because they know the kid's typically, a, not going to fight back, and b, typically not [going to] report, because as bad as children get treated by their parents, that parent is still the caregiver.

That's why parricide is such a unique offense, because the vast majority, the thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of people who have been abused by their parents, never do anything. You get that question all the time in these cases: How many parricides are there a year? Well, 200 to 300. How many kids are abused? In the hundreds of thousands or millions.

So why [do some kill and others don't]?

So why? Well, those cases are the most extreme, and those cases are also the confluence of a variety of events. Typically they've tried to get help. Typically they have told somebody and nobody's helped them out, or the abuse has just reached such a crescendo, given their mental health, that they can't go on any longer.

I followed a couple cases in Colorado where juveniles got life without parole, but what's the usual punishment?

Well, it depends. It used to be that life in prison was the typical sentence prior to about 1985-87. ... Today -- in 2000, really after, like, the late 1990s, we see many, many more sentences of manslaughter and of involuntary manslaughter; there are cases where it's second-degree murder. But in terms of life without parole, it's rare to nonexistent except in a state like Colorado.

Why Colorado?

It's the nature of the law in Colorado. I think it's the punitive nature with which the Legislature has [seen] fit to treat adolescent perpetrators of homicide. It started in the late 1980s. Many states changed their laws with the increase -- it was a big increase -- in adolescent homicides, mostly as a result of drugs.

But that became generalized over the whole country, and many states ratcheted up their laws. In New York state, for instance, at the age of 13, kids could be transferred to adult court. But by and large, [in] the cases I've had, for instance, in New York, most of the kids who have been convicted of a homicide of a parent here have gotten typically manslaughter. They use something called the "extreme emotional disturbance" defense in many states -- it's [that] they're acting under heat of passion.

The states recognize that there is, if you look at the history, that there's a reason why these cases happen. You get a state like Colorado, where there's life without parole; if you get convicted of the murder, then there's no discretion at that point.

They don't care?

... Legislatures which pass laws that give life without parole to teenagers typically don't care about rehabilitation of teenagers, don't care about giving teenagers any hope. All they care about is locking them up and throwing away the key, and those kids be damned. ...

But really, if you look around the country -- and I've done cases in pretty much every state in the country, either directly or I've consulted on hundreds of these cases. For instance, states like Texas have a really bad national reputation, yet I've done a number of cases in Texas that have resulted in manslaughter [convictions]. In fact, Texas juries are actually the best juries, as far as I'm concerned, to do some of these cases, because the juries do the sentencing in Texas, which is the way it really should be around the United States. Jurors should take responsibility: They convict the person; they should take responsibility for what the sentencing is. ...

What do you think [the sentence] should be when an abused kid [kills his parents]?

Well, I think it really varies. I get asked that question a lot. I think what really needs to happen is that there has to be a full and complete understanding of the history of the abuse. Typically what happens in this case is the state comes in, and they just want to focus on what happens on the day of the homicide, maybe a couple days before, because in these kinds of cases, the kids make the cases for the state; ... because typically, kids being kids, they talk about it, either before they commit the crime or after they commit the crime.

The focus, though, is on those two or three days, and the day of the homicide. If a lawyer allows that to be the geometry of the defense, then the chances of the kid getting anything [better] than murder are very slim. However, what typically happens ... is you go back in time. You go back to when the kid was a child, and you bring up the entire scope of the family history. You also use mental health experts who can fully and effectively explain to the jury the extreme damage done to the child and then have the jury understand that the damage done to the child, as I've often said, is reflected in the rage of the homicide. ...

But even when they say there's a reason, [prosecutors] say it's an excuse.

Yeah, the "abuse excuse," and I think it's really unfortunate that that phrase ever came into being. ... If you go before juries, though, ... if there has been bad parenting or if the kid has a demonstrable mental health problem and you bring it out in an effective and coherent way to the jury, most jurors will respond to that. ...

But jurors are not that nice to kids.

In general they're not very nice. There was a study done by the Department of Justice -- which is not a liberal think tank -- on ... outcomes of family homicides, and that study looked at everything from teenagers who kill their parents to parents who kill their children to husbands who kill wives, wives who kill husbands, brothers who kill sisters. The most harsh treatment, at least [during] the mid-1990s, were teenagers who killed their parents, and the most lenient treatment were parents who killed their children. ...

If you look at, around the country, the way people are treated who commit homicide, we treat most leniently those parents who kill their children, and most children who they're killing are under the age of 2 years old. And we treat most harshly the teenagers who kill their parents.

Why, do you suppose?

I think there's a very good reason for it: because jurors can empathize much more with a parent who kills a child than they can with a child who kills a parent, because jurors, when they come into the courtroom in infanticide cases and when they come into court in parricide cases, come in first as parents. It's the only kinds of cases you [have] where the jurors really are expert witnesses, because they think they know what good parenting is; they think they know the plight of a parent; they think they know what an unruly teenager is; they think they know what a good kid is. ...

"It could have been my child" --

Oh, I think a lot of jurors think that, ... or they compare their kid to it. ... What's interesting [is] legislatures, while they ratcheted up and made the punishments for teenagers who commit not just homicide, actually, but all classes of violent crime much more severe, ... there's been an understanding at the same time that abuse is probably one of the most important social issues today because of its long-term effects. So the punishments that we give to parents who injure their children are much greater now.

[It] used to be that if a parent killed a child it was rare that they even went to prison -- that was true up through the mid-1980s -- or if they went to prison it was for a year or two. And only in the last 10, 12 years do parents now who kill their children get sent to prison for any length of time. ...

The usual thing about children [committing homicide] is they'll bring along a friend.

Well, yeah. I don't know how usual [that is]. I'd say in 20 percent of my cases, 20 percent of parricides, they'll bring along a friend or they'll tell a friend or they'll get a gun from a friend. Those kinds of parricides are much more difficult to defend. It's much easier defending a case where the child does it on his or her own, because then the psychological motivation from it is much easier.

But when you have somebody come along with you or you hire somebody -- I've got a lot of cases where they hire somebody, or typically I call them the "Bonnie and Clyde" cases, where the girl goes and gets her boyfriend to kill her father or mother; those are very common cases -- the argument that you can make that it's solely abuse-driven or the kid had no recourse to get help are much more difficult. ...

That, plus what you call overkill. ... Explain the overkill to me.

Overkill is ... a result of the emotional buildup and the fear that this parent is larger than life, and when they kill, they have to stab numerous times; they have to use the baseball bat numerous times. They never fire one bullet from a gun; they fire the whole barrel. They never fire one shotgun shell; they fire numerous ones. In today's time kids use semiautomatic handguns that, when you press the trigger, you can pull off 14 rounds in a few seconds, whole clips typically. It's not just bang and you're dead. Never happens like that. Never, never, never. ...

[One inmate I interviewed] was saying, "I was sitting in the jail, and I was telling my brother: 'I have an ounce of marijuana at home; go get it. And write a letter that I won't be going to school tomorrow.' And here I am facing a first-degree murder [charge], and I worry about the marijuana at home." The last thing he thought was he was in trouble.

Right, that's right. Many times I've had cases where the kid does not know the parent is dead. Even though they participated directly in the homicide and they died in front of the person, they somehow think that maybe a shotgun shot ... will not kill the person if they're shot in the head or the chest. ...

And they rarely can talk about it.

Well, that's a big thing I've learned over the years. ... When you interview somebody about what happened to them in these cases, where you interview somebody about the homicide, you create this traumatic stress reaction in them usually where they start reliving. You ask somebody who has been abused, they start reliving the abuse, and this is true of even ... victims of sex abuse in the church or wherever. Those people, typically when they tell you their story -- and these are people 50, 60 years old sometimes -- they relive it as if it was yesterday. ...

At the Geneva [meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Committee] last year, the U.S. was criticized for what it does about life without parole, and they said, "It's very, very rare, and it's the worst of the worst." And when I look at the guys, it's their first crime!

Oh, yeah, yeah. This is the first time. ... These kids are excellent candidates for rehabilitation, and the one principle you look at is you can tell a person's future behavior by how they were prior to the offense they've committed. For instance, kids who, let's say, rob a convenience store, all the research shows that there's an ascending level of violence. It starts out with what they call bump-and-grabs in elementary school or junior high school -- they'll take lunch money from kids; then it goes up to breaking and entering and an ascending level of aggressive behavior against people and property.

These kids [who are abused by their parents] don't have any of that. They tend to be -- unfortunately, because of their history of being intimidated by authority, they do excellent in prison. They don't rebel; they don't talk back to officers. I can't tell you the numbers of cases where these kids have become trustees in prison; they become excellent candidates for parole, because there is a psychological reason for why they killed that's identifiable and verifiable. ... They ended up killing as a result of their parent relationship; that parent is dead tragically, but that's not going to repeat itself in their lives. So as a result, they do excellent in prison, and I haven't had any kids who have gotten [out], none ever recommitted an offense.

So it's even more sad for the kids [in] Colorado?

For those that get convicted of murder and get sent away with life without parole, yeah, sure. You know, I don't think people really care. I think you're asking a question that is like screaming into the ocean for people. ...

I did a case a number of years ago: A woman was in a Maryland state penitentiary. ... Maryland is one of the first states in the country to give clemency to battered women. So a battered women's coalition is formed within the women's prison in Maryland to get women out of prison.

[This] woman had been in prison since 1975 for killing both of her parents, tries to join the group, and she calls me up, and she says, "Mr. Mones, I tried to join this group, but they told me I couldn't be in the group." And I said, "Well, why is that?" She says, "Well, they said because I didn't kill my husband; I killed my parents." ... I ended up taking her case on, and we got clemency from the governor of Maryland for her. But she got no support from the battered women's community at that time. ...

One thing that's interesting that's happened in America in the last 20 years is we used to have the death penalty for anybody really basically between, like, 13 and 17. First we declared the death penalty for people 15 years and younger unconstitutional, a case called Thompson vs. Oklahoma [1988]. Then just in the last year, now we don't have the death penalty for kids who are [17]. Why? Because even this Supreme Court, as conservative as it is, recognized that evolving standards of decency in America showed that it was not appropriate to kill teenagers.

Now, what that's raised, though, is the issue of, if you don't kill them, then we've got to put them away [for] life without parole. I think the same arguments that the Court has made of why we should not have the death penalty for teenagers is the same reason why there shouldn't be life without parole. And in fact, if you look at a lot of the research that was the underpinning of those decisions, it's that kids lack consequential thinking.

Think of all the laws we have in America about why we don't allow adolescents and teenagers to do things. For instance, the same kid who gets life without parole and can be interrogated [as an adult] without his parent present, who is 15 or 16 years old, can't sell his bicycle, OK? You can't enter into a contract, can't buy a piece of property, can't enter a pool hall, can't buy a drink -- can't do all those things -- can't vote. Why? Because we recognize that 18 is a bright line for decision making, for consequential thinking. ...

It's not saying that the crime is not serious; I mean, the crimes are clearly very serious. But this [Colorado mandatory sentencing law applies] to people who kill convenience store clerks, who have long histories of being aggressive, etc., as it equally applies to kids who kill their parents. ...

In the ladder of heinous crimes, where do you see parricide?

Parricide by teenagers? Well, I think the most heinous crime is the killing of a child. In my world that would get the most significant penalty. ...

Back around 10 years ago, [in 1995,] a woman named Susan Smith strapped her kids into a car and pushed that car into the water, and her kids died. Little children. And I said to friends of mine and others, I said, what would happen if her children grew up, after years of treatment, strapped her into the car and pushed her into the lake? ... Would a great cry come up from America to save the lives of two boys who strapped their mother in a car and pushed her in a lake? Don't think so. ...

The real thing that angers me in parricide cases is that relatives and neighbors and friends know. All of the people that have come to me over the years and said: "Oh, you know what? I knew something was wrong, Mr. Mones, but I really didn't feel it was my place to say anything." ... Most people never say anything. People are much more likely to stop at a car accident, ... when they can do nothing for the car accident, than they can for actually helping to intervene where a kid they know well is being injured.

Even social workers?

And even social workers. The problem in many of these cases I've found -- and there's no hard statistics on it -- but where kids really reach a point of desperation is where they have tried to get help and then they're drawn back in, or the case I've had where the kid tells somebody, and they call the kid and the parent in at the same time. I mean, it's crazy, but they do it. And the kids always get punished for it.

Is this country especially hard on teenagers?

I think we have a very punitive -- teenophobic, I call it -- atmosphere in America. I think we market well to teenagers and to children; they represent probably the greatest demographic for marketing movies and sneakers and all these other lifestyle issues. Yet on the same hand, we're really good in suppressing their dreams in terms of giving them the kinds of education they need, etc. I think we're doing much better, I should say, than we used to do. ... But I don't think we put the same kind of energy into kids as we really should. ...

But you said "punitive." [How?]

... The logic of how we deal with kids is best illustrated this way: A kid screws up in school, so that kid is self-identifying himself that he has a problem. What do you do to him? You kick him out of school. What happens when you kick him out of school? You typically don't give him any services.

You kick him out of school for one day, three days, five days, and the chances of him returning get less and less the more times this kid is suspended, as opposed to saying, OK, we're not going to kick you out of school; you're going to go to another facility where you're going to be sitting in a classroom with teachers to understand why you committed X, Y and Z misbehavior or offense. ...

[Do you think] we're afraid of teenagers?

I think we definitely are afraid of kids. I always ask people on the juries that, and I can really tell jurors' attitudes. I'll say, "Well, do you think teenagers commit more crimes than adults do?," and invariably you get most people raising their hand, saying yes. And it's not true, you know. We like to think teenagers are more violent, etc., than their adult counterparts, but they're not.

Why?

Why? I don't know. It's a deep secret from me. I've tried to think about it over the years, and I think it's that perhaps there's this misunderstanding that becomes punitive; that we ... forget about what it was like to be a kid. We forget about all the emotions. We forget about the hormones raging. We forget about [the fact] that kids don't think before they act. ...

So teenagers become a bit of an enemy?

I think kids are an enemy. ... I want to emphasize I think that things are better now than they used to be in terms of teenagers, but yeah, I think ... there's a myopia about children, that we really don't view them as we should be viewing them. We view them through adult glasses, especially teenagers. Because they look like us, because they're older and taller and bigger and stronger, we expect them to be thinking like us. That's just not the way it is; they just don't think like us. ...

It used to be that the drinking age was 18. One of the main reasons it was raised to 21 is we recognized that even kids between 18 and 21 still lack some of the consequential, mature thinking that allows them, when they get into a car, to say, "Uh-oh, I've had too much to drink; I'm not going to drive." And that's saved thousands and thousands and thousands of lives. ...

But it doesn't translate [to criminal justice]?

But it doesn't translate over. ... And I'll move to another population: kids who commit our worst crimes; kids in gangs; kids who rob the convenience store clerk; kids who commit aggravated violence; kids who do the bad things we read about on the front page of the newspaper. Those kids, by and large, we know have demonstrated significant mental health problems and have been victimized by their parents. And we know this, probably, when they're 6 to 7 years old.

Typically what the system does, instead of spending the money on the front end to treat kids, we spend money on the backend for jails. ... We'd rather pay a correctional officer $35,000 a years, whatever it is, to monitor the incarceration of an adolescent rather than spend the $35,000 up front for more services. ... I think that's a bargain that we're making with society: Spend the money later on rather than spend the money up front. ...

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posted may. 8, 2007

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