Nine-year-old boy accused of five murders appears in court
Eureka - A 9-year-old boy accused of murder and arson in the deaths of five people appeared Monday morning in Woodford County juvenile court, as a judge tried to explain the charges brought against him.
The boy wore blue slacks and a red-and-black-checkered shirt. He walked in with his hands in his pockets. When he sat, his feet touched the ground only if he slid forward in his chair, and his head barely reached above the top of the seat.
He is accused of starting the April fire that took the lives of four relatives and his mother's boyfriend. His mother, Katie Alwood, confirmed his identity. The Tribune is not naming him because he has been charged as a juvenile.
The boy, if found guilty, is too young to be sentenced to any juvenile detention centre. He could only face probation.
Judge Charles Feeney read the charges to the boy, who sat with a court-appointed attorney. Representatives of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services attended the hearing, along with the boy's grandparents and father.
The fire, which took place in early April in a mobile home in Goodfield, Illinois, claimed the lives of Jason Wall, 34, and two of his and Katie Alwood's children, Daemeon Wall, 2, and Ariel Wall, 1. Kathryn Murray, 69, also died in the fire; she was Alwood's grandmother. Alwood's niece, Rose Alwood, 2, also died.
Feeney read the first count to the boy, saying that he's alleged to have "committed the offense of first-degree murder and you ... set fire to trailer residence ... thereby caused the death of Jason Wall."
When Feeney asked the boy if he understood, he shook his head: no.
"What don't you understand?" he asked.
"What I did," the boy said.
The judge started over, stopping on certain words to define them for the boy. After having been read a few counts, the boy told his attorney he didn't know what allegation meant.
The judge introduced another count by comparing it to the previous: that it was "essentially the same thing, that you set the fire to the trailer residence on the same date and everything, only in this instance, Ariel Wall died. Do you understand what is alleged in count four?"
"Yes," he said.
"In count five, it alleges essentially the same thing, only it alleges the death of Rose Alwood. Do you understand what is alleged in count five?"
"Yes," the boy said.
A moment later, the boy's attorney spoke up.
"Your Honour - I apologise - he told me he doesn't know what alleged means."
The judge explained it to the boy until he nodded and then spoke that he understood.
"It means someone accuses you," the judge said. "If I accuse you of wearing a purple shirt ... I allege you're wearing a purple shirt. Is that true?
"No," the boy said, correctly.
The judge set another court date in November.
DCFS took the boy into custody two days after the fire and he's been a ward of the state since, according to the agency. Charges were announced earlier this month.
Some juvenile justice advocates have criticised the move to charge the boy with murder.
Though the boy is too young to be taken into custody, if he is convicted and violates terms of probation, a judge can sentence him to county detention once he is 10 years old and state juvenile prison if he's 13.
Woodford County State's Attorney Greg Minger hasn't said why he chose to charge the boy with murder and why his decision came more than six months after the fire.
The county medical examiner's office ruled the five deaths homicides in April after consulting the Illinois State Fire Marshal's office, the county sheriff's office and the local fire protection district.
Their investigation determined the fire intentional. All three agencies have declined to comment.
The boy, along with his mother, Katie, survived the fire. After he was charged with murder, Katie confirmed to the Tribune and other media outlets that her son was charged with murder and said he set the fire.
Days later, a judge in the case issued a gagging order pertaining to the boy's protective care case, a DCFS official confirmed. It's not clear whether her decision to release photos of her son to the media played a role in the judge's decision, but she hasn't been the boy's legal guardian since April.
Minger said the decision to seek a gagging order was made by DCFS and covered the boy's parents and other parties to the case.