Prosecutors are reviewing whether a 12-year-old boy should be charged as an adult after police accused him of fatally beating his toddler cousin with a baseball bat for interrupting a cartoon show.
The boy, whose name was not released, was being held in juvenile custody in the death of 17-month-old Shaloh Joseph, who police said enraged the suspect by crying while he watched television.
The case has powerful similarities to that of Lionel Tate, another 12-year-old, whose killing of a playmate convulsed the legal system in the same county and set off a debate over Florida’s tough juvenile laws.
Tate was accused in the 1999 murder of a 6-year-old girl. He was convicted as an adult and was believed to have been the youngest person ever sentenced to life in prison in the U.S.
Assistant State Attorney Maria Schneider, who is prosecuting the case, said it was impossible not to think of the Tate case, but insisted the little girl’s killing would be viewed independently.
“Every case has to be viewed on its own merits. Obviously we know what happened with Lionel’s case. How could you not?” she said. “Is it ultimately going to affect what happens in this case? Of course not.”
The boy’s public defenders said the case belonged in the juvenile system.
“The juvenile justice system is in place for a reason, and juvenile sanctions exist for a reason,” said Sandy Perlman, one of the boy’s lawyers.
The attack happened Friday afternoon, police said, when the suspect was left in charge of his second cousin at the cousin’s home. The boy was watching a cartoon — detectives aren’t sure which one — when the baby started crying.
“He became enraged she was interrupting the television,” said Lt. Mike Cochran. “It’s really sort of surreal.”
The boy grabbed a wooden baseball bat, police said, and hit the girl multiple times. She was pronounced dead later and was found to have suffered several skull fractures.
The young suspect is a seventh-grader who stands 4-foot-11 and weighs just 90 pounds. Another attorney, Gordon Weekes, said he wears braces and is very close to his family.
Police say he confessed.
“He’s trying to hold himself together,” Weekes said.
The suspect in this case had no prior offenses, according to police, and a Department of Children & Families spokeswoman said that agency had not been involved with either the victim or the suspect.
A man who answered the door at the home where the beating allegedly took place said no one wished to comment. A man at an address listed under the name of the boy’s mother refused to comment.
Police said another child, a 10-year-old, was also left in the boy’s care along with the baby, though police have not identified that child’s relationship to the victim or suspect.
Attorneys for both the prosecution and defense said they were looking into the level of supervision given the suspect. But Schneider said the fact that a 12-year-old was left in charge of two younger children did not sound any immediate alarm.
“There are other households where, yes, a 12-year-old is considered responsible enough to babysit a 17-month-old,” she said. “I don’t think you can just say on its face that is so unreasonable.”
The suspect was ordered held Sunday for at least 21 days.
The case is eerily similar to that of Tate, who was held responsible for beating and stomping to death 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick. Tate’s lawyers initially claimed he killed the girl while imitating pro-wrestling moves.
An appeals court overturned his first-degree murder conviction in 2004 after determining it wasn’t clear whether Tate understood the charges against him. He was freed from prison under a deal in which he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, but violated his probation and was handed a 30-year sentence.
Ken Padowitz, the prosecutor in Tate’s murder case, empathized with attorneys weighing this case, saying they are “caught between a rock and a hard place” similar to what he experienced.
“We found ourselves in a situation of going to a juvenile system that was too lenient and going to the grand jury and risking a first-degree murder charge, which was too harsh.”