Officials say Alton 11-year-old could be state’s youngest person to face murder charges

Monitor staff
Published: 3/22/2019 5:32:31 PM

An 11-year-old accused of fatally shooting an Alton couple is the youngest child to face murder charges under New Hampshire’s juvenile laws in decades, perhaps ever.

Veteran attorneys and law enforcement officials could cite murder cases against 14- to 17-year-olds accused in stabbing and shooting deaths across the state – although those cases, too, are rare in New Hampshire. Many of those recognizable cases shared a common characteristic: the young defendants were tried as adults in New Hampshire’s superior courts rather than in the confidential juvenile courts, and thereby the details of what happened ultimately made public.

The boy charged with the juvenile offenses of second-degree murder in the deaths of James Eckert, 48, and his wife, Lizette Eckert, 50, in Alton on March 15 is too young to be prosecuted under the state’s criminal code as an adult.

Under New Hampshire law, a child who is under the age of 15 shall not be held criminally responsible for his or her conduct and will be dealt with in juvenile court. However, there is an exception to the rule: children between the ages of 13 and 15 can be certified as an adult for murder and other serious offenses.

Age 11 meets neither threshold and, therefore, the case brought against the boy will proceed behind closed doors with few ever knowing the outcome, said former New Hampshire attorney general Michael Delaney.

“It’s quite rare to have a minor as young as 11 being accused of these types of acts,” said Delaney, now an attorney at McLane Middleton. “Nationally, statistics suggest it happens maybe a handful of times in the country each year – if that.”

Experts say the case in Alton is even more unique because it’s a double homicide. Lizette Eckert died at the scene after suffering a single gunshot wound to the head. James Eckert died at the hospital hours later under the same circumstances.

“This appears to be the youngest perpetrator we’ve had,” said Lt. John Sonia of the Major Crimes Unit, who began his career with New Hampshire State Police 20 years ago.

Multiple criminal experts could not cite any case in state history where an 11-year-old faced murder charges. The Monitor set out to determine if this case was unprecedented for the state, but crime statistics were inconclusive. Data requests to state agencies and the courts are still pending.

Authorities have said the boy’s age precludes them from releasing much information about the incident in Alton, including whether he is being detained pending an adjudicatory hearing, or even where he is being held.

Juvenile proceedings

New Hampshire laws do not specify a minimum age at which a child can be charged with a crime. Maine laws mirror New Hampshire statute in that respect; however, neighboring Vermont and Massachusetts have established minimum ages of 10 and 7 respectively.

Regardless of whether a state has an established minimum age, prosecutors still have some discretion when deciding how best to move forward, Delaney said.

“Assessing this type of act when the allegations are against someone as young as 11 are very rare,” he said. “There will be a host of considerations not just to determine what occurred but to determine how that minor can receive a fair adjudication in juvenile court at such a young age of development.”

In all cases, juveniles have the right to an attorney and most often are appointed a public defender to represent them. There is no trial and no jury; rather a judge proceeds over a hearing where the facts of the case are presented and both sides make arguments.

The process is similar to what unfolds in the adult courts in that the court is constantly assessing the safety of the community, the victims and the offender, but there is an even greater concern for rehabilitation. Comparatively, the adult system is primarily a penal system. Juvenile offenders can be detained following their arrest, including at the state’s largest secure detention center in Manchester; however, they are never incarcerated at a county jail or state prison.

For the judge to enter a “true” finding, prosecutors must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the same burden of proof in adult courts for a conviction in a criminal case.

The outcome is not part of the public record; however, if the offender is rearrested as an adult, attorneys will have access to those records and information could be shared as part of arguments made in open court.

Penalties in juvenile court range from secure detention until the child’s 18th birthday to community service and fines. There are no minimum and maximum penalties as outlined in the criminal code for someone facing a murder charge. In those more serious cases, prosecutors can petition the juvenile court to retain jurisdiction over a case until the offender turns 21. If that petition is granted, there are further hearings to assess that person’s dangerousness to him/herself and the community, and further arguments could be made for civil commitment.

“It’s not like the person turns 21 and they’re out,” Delaney said. “In any case, when the individual maxes out of that juvenile system there is an overall assessment of safety. The system is designed to impose the least-restrictive measure that is necessary.”

Other considerations

From a law enforcement perspective, there aren’t a lot of differences between investigations of juvenile offenses and adult crimes except for the laws that dictate interactions with the offender. An adult suspect is read his or her Miranda Rights, while a juvenile offender is read a more comprehensive set of rights that require the investigator to proceed more cautiously and give the minor the chance to consult an adult to include a parent, friend, relative and/or attorney.

Concord police Detective Sgt. Rob Buelte said the officer questioning a juvenile offender needs to assess how that person is dealing with what happened, how they’re responding to questions and if he or she is able to make educated decisions about how to proceed.

“It’s rare that someone’s first contact with police is because of a serious incident – there is usually something leading up to it,” Buelte said “If they’ve had contact with us before, what were the circumstances? Is there a school resource officer who has had some interaction and can tell us about this kid?”

Buelte said he is concerned occurrences of juvenile-perpetrated homicides could increase because of a rise in drug and gang-related activity.

While these types of homicides are rare, others in the criminal justice community are concerned about future trends, too.

Randy Hawkes, the executive director of the New Hampshire Public Defender program, said the office has “seen a disquieting increase in frequency lately” with four juvenile homicide cases opened in the last two years.

David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center, has studied youth criminals for years and said the first question most people ask is why a child would commit such a heinous act.

“What the research suggests is when you have particularly young offenders, they are often times from environments where there are fairly extreme circumstances at play, whether abuse, maltreatment, extreme neglect or family conflict,” Finkelhor said.

Sometimes when a child perpetrates a homicide there is influence from a peer group, he said. In other instances, there may be media influences, to include violent video games; however, that influence is usually accompanied by other factors making the child predisposed to violence.

Exactly what circumstances may have been at play in the Alton case is unknown because of the juvenile’s right to confidential proceedings.

“When we talk about youth homicides, we’re usually talking about 15 to 17-year-olds. Eleven is way below that age range and what you’d expect, but it’s not completely unheard of,” Finkelhor said. “There will be a lot of ethical controversies here: How do we know if justice is being done? How do we know the public is protected? Will someone who is in the early stages of his development recover?”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319 or at adandrea@cmonitor.com.)


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