maintain that the more common situations of child homicide arise not out of the intent to kill the child; rather it is the end result of harsh punishment. Based on this reasoning, such offenders should not be handled in criminal courts and the offenses should be criminal offenses, but rather the cases should be handled in juvenile and domestic relations courts. To determine the whether this reasoning is sound, this paper reviews the relevant literature concerning child homicide and intent, followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion about these issues.
The recent high-profile case of Minnesota Vikings football star Adrian Peterson concerning charges that he inadvertently injured his 4-year-old son while physically disciplining him drives home the points that anyone can make a terrible and irrevocable mistake in the heat of passion and, that compared to young children, adults are veritable super-giants that can easily exert their will on them. These two points are also at the heart of the debate over home child homicide defendants should be adjudicated by the courts. As Pritchard (2000) emphasizes, “Because child homicide is statistically so rare (a very large number of those in the risk groups do not kill or injure children), it is virtually impossible to devise predictive guidelines, or describe typical child homicide assailants” (p. 125). In fact, Pritchard points out that because of the rarity of the crime
According to Black’s Law Dictionary (1990), homicide is “the killing of one human being by the act, procurement or admission of another; a person is guilty of criminal homicide if he purposely, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently causes the death of another human being” (p. 734). In addition, charges for criminal homicide can range from murder, to manslaughter or negligent homicide, each with its own defining characteristics and burden of proof (Black’s, 1990). In the case of child homicide, it is fairly straightforward to understand — which is not to say approve — how some exhausted, overwrought and depressed parents can lose control when disciplining their children without consciously meaning to physically harm anyone. In this regard, Pritchard (2004) emphasizes that, “Indeed, there is a strong element of the ‘accidental’ when child abuse goes to the extreme” (p. 125).
All of this speaks to the manner in which such offenders should be handled by the courts. Some authorities maintain that because child homicide is almost invariably the result of harsh punishment gone too far, these cases should be adjudicated in juvenile or domestic relations courts. The same spurious reasoning could also be applied to homicide cases where very large men (or women) accidentally killed their much smaller spouses as a result of a domestic dispute, or in cases where pet owners end up killing their pets as a result of out-of-control discipline. In sum, anyone who kills a child, for whatever reason and under whatever circumstances (even self-defense), should be adjudicated in a criminal court of law.
The United States is a land of laws, and the law of the land is intended to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and there is no more vulnerable group in American society than young children. In the past, harsh corporal punishment was regarded as the biblical path to rearing righteous and honest children. By very sharp contrast, today, harsh corporal punishment is regarded as a criminal offense in many jurisdictions and the days are long gone, as Mr. Peterson discovered when parents can physically punish their children unto severity with impunity. It is reasonable to conclude that if Mr. Peterson’s son had died as a result of his punishment, there would be few observers calling for his case to be resolved in a domestic relations court. In the final analysis, some adults will always kill children, accidentally or otherwise, and determining the truth in these cases requires a criminal court.
Black’s law dictionary. (1990). St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co.
Pritchard, C. (2004). The child abusers: Research and controversy. Maidenhead, England: Open
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