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Historically, Eight-Year-Old Killers Have Been Mythical

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The confession of an eight-year-old boy to the murder of his father and another man last week in St. Johns, Arizona, is shocking. It also may be false.

Assuming it isn't, however, the boy is the youngest known killer in U.S. history, although not, alas, the only child of such tender years to have confessed to murder under police interrogation.

Three others ages 8 or younger have confessed to murders, all three falsely.

In 1998, Romarr Gipson, 7, and Elijah Henderson, 8, confessed to the murder of an 11-year-old girl named Ryan Harris in Chicago. Four weeks after the boys' arrest, the Illinois crime lab reported finding semen on the victim's panties. The prepubescent boys obviously could not have been the source of the semen, which eventually was linked by DNA to a 29-year-old serial rapist.

The third was 8-year-old Melvin Dean Nimer, whose parents were stabbed to death in their Long Island home in 1958. The little boy initially told police that a masked intruder not only had killed his parents but also had strangled him. Three days later, however, after intensive interrogation, he tearfully confessed. His innocence was established when a medical report corroborating his initial story belatedly surfaced. The report, which prosecutors had concealed for weeks, documented that four fingerprints and pinpoint hemorrhages inflicted by strangulation had been found on his neck. Three examples obviously do not a trend make. But, before jumping to a conclusion about the veracity of Arizona boy's confession, it should be kept in mind, as Art Linkletter memorably put it, that kids say the darndest things.

The younger they are, the more they tend to be submissive, compliant, naively trustful of authority, and lacking in judgment -- traits that render them especially vulnerable to confessing to crimes they did not commit.