When An 8 Year Old Kills

A child died, and that is tragic. But an 8-year-old child is being charged in juvenile court with her murder. And that is outrageous. Because not every tragedy is a crime, and not every actor is a criminal.
11/23/2015 01:15 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2016

One late-October night in Alabama, sometime around 11:00pm, an 8 year old boy was left alone in an apartment with five younger children while the boy's mother - and the mother of the other children - went out to a club. When Kelci Lewis, a one-year-old girl, would not stop crying, the 8 year old allegedly beat her. Kelci died sometime later in the night, presumably from the injuries she sustained. The main witness, according to the police, is Kelci's 6-year-old sister.

This entire situation is tragic, to be sure. And to charge this 8-year-old with murder in juvenile court would greatly compound this tragedy.

But that's exactly what the state of Alabama has done.

And yes, they can do that. In fact, Alabama is one of 30 states in the United States that has no minimum age for holding children responsible for their actions.

If that sounds absurd, that's because it is.

Young children - and eight years old is very young - have brains that do not function in the same way as older children. One recent study looked at the way that children learn from mistakes. Using brain imaging scans, scientists discovered that 8-year-old brains responded to positive and negative feedback in ways that significantly differed from 12-year-old brains. And this is consistent throughout neuroscience. Young children have brains that function differently from tweens and teens, while teens have brains that function differently than adults.

I keep imagining the scene that night. It is dark outside and late. I have no idea why the children are awake. Perhaps they had never been put to sleep. Or perhaps they had all gone to sleep and been awakened by Kelci's cries. As the oldest, the 8-year-old is in charge. He can't get Kelci to stop crying. His mother is not home. Kelci's mother is not home. Kelci's siblings are up and about. And in the chaos of the night, he allegedly hits her until she is quiet.

But let's be clear: it is extremely unlikely that this 8-year-old had any intention to kill. Perhaps he wanted Kelci to stop crying so he could go back to sleep. Or perhaps he was frightened. Or perhaps he has learned that when you cry, you get hit.

In whatever scenario, this child needs therapeutic support, not murder charges in the juvenile justice system. Yet, Alabama is insisting on holding this 8-year-old to a standard that his brain -- and the circumstances -- do not support.

A child died, and that is tragic. But an 8-year-old child is being charged in juvenile court with her murder. And that is outrageous. Because not every tragedy is a crime, and not every actor is a criminal.