Brad Hirschfield Live: Is being raised by a neo-Nazi a defense against murder charges?

Nov 01, 2012

The trial is underway for a 10-year-old California boy accused of shooting his neo-Nazi father to death.

Is the type of household in which he was raised defense against the charges? Is this the ultimate dodge, or a reminder of the power of parenting?

If the now-12-year-old child is held responsible for the death of 32-year-old Jeff Hall he "could become the youngest person currently in the custody of California's corrections department," the Associated Press reported Monday. Brad Hirschfield will live chat with readers at 1 p.m. ET about this topic.

Submit questions and opinions for Brad to respond to now.

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Today is, as one southern friend of mine likes to say, a "toughie".  Or is it?


When a murder is committed, does it matter that the trigger "man" is a ten year old boy?  Does it matter that the victim is a neo-nazi with his own long history of violence?  What do you think?


How should the law account for the lessons children learn from their parents -- lessons which could make shooting one's dad seem like a reasonable response to the father's own erratic and violent behavior?  Should such lessons even matter, or is a murder a murder, no matter who commits it or why?


Let's get started!

From the linked article, it sounds like the decedent father had taught his son to use violence to settle problems. So, that becomes a state-of-mind factor in determining sentencing. But politically incorrect parenting is not a crime, nor a defense to one.

Well said, whcih is another way of saying that we agree.  Of course the kid's state of mind is the whole issue -- at least in terms of establishing his guilt.  And while you summarize the issue well, you avoid taking a position on that critical issue.


Of course, the judge will make his finding in due course, but based on what we know, what do you think, and how d you come to that position?


Personally, it seems that this child was engaged in all kinds of violent behavior from an early age, was punished because of it and therefore knew it was wrong -- at least as far as the "world" was concerned -- and therefore the "my dad was a Nazi" defense should fail.

I know that Nazi ideology is hateful and has no place in this world, but from what I read of the article, the boy was yelled at and physically abused by his father. Everybody has a breaking point, regardless if one's abuse came from a Nazi, a communist, a sharia sympathizer, a peace loving hippie, or anybody else.

So your point is that his having been abused by his father justifies his cooling discussing the shooting with his father the day before, then going to the closet and getting the weapon, and shooting the sleeping man?  Do you really think that? 


To be sure, there is no acceptable justification for child abuse, but it just doesn't seem that even the boy's defense lawyer claims that his father was so abusive that it could have justified the kid's behavior.  Could it be that many of us, simply find it hard to believe that a 10 year old child could be so twisted as to murder his dad?

The only specific example the linked article mentions about the father's beliefs is that he supports a white breakaway nation. Advocating genocide could be a mitigating factor. Believing that ethnic tensions aren't worth it, and that our country would be better off partitioned like Yugoslavia or Sudan was, is just an opinion which is not a judgement on value of the holder's life.

It sounds like you would be okay with shooting him if he was a "real" Nazi i.e. one who advocated genocide, but if he "only" supported civil war and the creation of a racist country in a section of the United States, that would be n big deal.  I hope I have that wrong, but I think I read you loud and clear.


Clearly, this case is going to surface some very interesting ideas about what constitutes not only murder, but the very definitions good parenting and the purpose of the United Sates of America.

I think murder is murder unless it is self defense or an accident. As a society, we have to agree to all live by a set of standards. Growing up in a place that follows a different set of standards doesn't make something less of a crime.

Actually,according to the law, to some extent it does.  If this child truly did not appreciate that what he was doing was wrong, at least according to the law of the land, if not his own moral compass, then he would not be guilty of murder.  That said, it seems that he was aware, but that is what the trial will be about.


Your claim that we must all agree to live by certain norms is the key, especially as the "we all" does NOT mean that each person must agree in order for the social contract to be binding.  The "we" is collective, and one cannot simply opt out because they don't share the dominant view.  So we agree, that nobody gets a pass simply because they happen not to agree with the law.

Doesn't sound like the father's philosophy (odious as it may be) has much to do with the real question here. We're talking about a 10-year old. He clearly has issues, but isn't the question at what age/level of maturity we think that "criminality" with all of it's retribution/responsibility/deterrence kicks in vs. needing to teach children what it means to live in a civilezed society.

The age issue is AN issue here, but the the only issue here.  In fact, the age issue has already been addressed, one could argue, by the fact that the boy is NOT being tried as an adult.  Were he found guilty, the most they could do is incarcerate him until he turns 23.  Personally, I worry about the implications for society when he gets out -- assuming that he is found guilty and goes in.


The question of punishing youthful offenders vs rehabilitating and educating them is not an easy one.  In fact, I think we too easily and too often like to pretend that we are doing both, when we often fail to do either with real effect.

It seems to me that the issue is abuse, in terms of physical violence and conditioning, for the defense. That's different from the views in and of themselves. A person's views, however repellant, cannot be an absolute defense against a murder charge. Plenty of people are raised by caretakers whose views they cannot and do not accept, and separate themselves from those individuals without resorting to violence. There might be the possibility of those views as a mitigating issue for sentencing, if the defense can argue the dissonance between the boy's father's views and his own developing views engendered enough confusion.

Your point about the difference between what constitutes a legitimate defense and an appropriate case of mitigating, but not justifying, circumstances is a great one.  While people can disagree about guilt and justification, they should not forget that thinking in such starkly dichotomous terms is often unwise, and certainly not legally necessary.


Seems to me that we would all do better if those who are quick to see guilt were a bit more ready to consider mitigating circumstances when it comes to punishment, and that those who see nothing but mitigating circumstances were a bit less timid about assigning guilt.

We may be disgusted by the idea of someone being a "Neo-Nazi", but it really limits our understanding of the context of the situation. I think the most important data point here is the kids age. He's so young! He clearly had a very, very troubled past. Putting him in prison for "as long as possible" will all but guarantee a very troubled future.

Or, we should put him away for een longer because he so damaged that he will never be fit for civil society.  I am not suggesting that be the response, but you have to admit that precluding it, especially given your view of how messed up teh kid is, means that you simply want to justify not locking him up.


You are right about how young he is and about how troubling that makes this whole story.  You are right that the evidence points to a child with serious problems which predate any claims related to abuse by his father.  Given that, are there any circumstances under which you would say that without proof that he has somehow changed, he may never be able to function normally?


Again, I am not saying that is the case, but if that is not considered, then how seriously should one take the calim that the child is ill?  Is it just that he should be viewed as sick enough not to incarcerate, but not so sick as to lock down until there is real proof that he is no longer sick?

Wow, when I first heard this I thought the son was an adult. But he's a mere kid who needs a lot of counseling. How you are raised has a tremendous affect on you. So it is a defense in his case BUT he has to need years of couseling to come to the conclusion that it was still wrong what he did. Don't put him in California's dysfunctional corrections department - that only will exacerabate this mixed up kid. Give him years and years of counseling and get him out of that God forsaken home. There is hope!

So there is hope, but no accountability?  Why can the two not co-exist?  Why is it that the "hope people" never argue for real punishment, and the "justice people" imagine that the future can never be different?


By the way, I am curious -- on what basis do you assume that with enough counseling, a child who shot his sleeping father, could be "fixed"?  Whose hope are you really arguing for, yours or the child's?

How does one parse out "nature" versus "nurture"? Is it all or none? Or is there a "tipping point" where one has certain tendencies (genetic) that can be enhanced by one's environment? Do we even possess enough data to make that call? Without it, can we even travel down that road? Here is what we do know--- it's seems pretty clear that this boy is a damaged person and currently unfit to live in a free society. However, I just can't believe that a 10-year old is capable of acting and thinking rationally (well, at least from the perspective of an adult). Even if he is hard wired to be a homicidal psychopath, it sounds like his upbringing didn't help curb any of his natural tendencies. Given his age and environment growing up, shouldn't he be given the benefit of the doubt and at least get fully evaluated and treated (i.e., for mental illness, regardless of its cause)?

I agree with everythign you wrote!  Thank you.


You are simultaneoulsy sensitive to the fact that we are dealing with a child, and unflinching about the horror of his alleged crime.  You accept that both the "nature crowd" and the "nurture camp" know much less than either side admits.  And finally, you embrace the notion that no decent society can either overlook crimes in teh present, or give up on the possibility that the future, especially for kids, may be different.

Did the boy perform a public service? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. You reap what you sow, and the child-abusing, violent and dangerous Jeff Hall made a choice to be nothing more than a cancerous tumor on the body politic. His 10-year-old son performed a public service by removing the cancer from society and should be praised for his brave act. May the children of all neo-Nazis find the same courage as this boy.

Just tell us how that is not exactly what neo-nazis are teaching their kids about people like you and me! Have you heard of the rule of law, of due process, or any other principle which defines ur society?


Describing other human beings as a cancer?  You mean the way Nazis described Jews, Gypsies, gay people, etc.?  If you are serious about what you wrote, then you have demonstrated that with the best of intentions, even decent people can come to support the most indecent actions.  In fact, that is the how the original Nazis built their base of support 70 years ago.

There really is no defense for murder other than self-defense, which in a way sounds like what they're claiming. But regardless of the court's finding, shouldn't this child be kept out of 'normal' society?

Yes, no, and certainly for the time being at the very least.


By definition, if one is defending themselves then it is not murder.  Killing and murdering are not the same.  And while we are at it, thereine lies a vast distinction in how one understands the Ten Commandments.  The Hebrew original bans murder, not killing.  There are times when taking a life is justifiable, both according to the Hebrew Bible and American law.


The defense is NOT arguing that the child was defending himself, as in a "battered wife" defense.  They claim that having been raised by a vilent father, he didn't know that shooting someone was really wrong.  Make of that what you will.


And finally, whatever happens with this case, there is plenty of evidence that this little boy is, at least for the time being, unfit for what yu call normal society.  It's awful and it hurts to admit such things, but he chocked his teacher with a phone cord when he was only 5 years old!  It's hard not to wonder if a stronger response then, could not have saved the kid, let alone his father, from what he faces now.

The child should not "get away with murder" but needs to be in a highly controlled environment. He needs to be thoroughly diagnosed and helped in understanding his actions and that they were wrong. Maybe in years to come there will be help for him, meanwhile, you can't simply kill him or let him off scot free.

Right you are.  I think that one of the most distressing and unproductive aspects of this case, and all such cases, is that they are litigated between forces that want one extreme or the other -- an aquital or a maximal conviction.  To some extent that cannot be avoided, but when dealing with a case in which both the crime and the one who allegedly committed it are so unusual, it seems that there should be a more sophisitcated way to respond.

Well, once again, our time is at hand and my hands are tired!  As I wrote at the top of our conversation, this one is a toughie.


At the core of this conversation is the challenge of balancing justice with mercy, present reality with hope for the future, and nature with nurture.  Without solving those enormous questions, I hope that you can a little clarity and perspective on each of them.


Thanks for your wonderful comments and questions, and don't forget that we can continue the conversation if you find me on facebook and follow me on twitter @bradhirschfield.


'Til next week,


In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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