Ethics Quiz: The Bad Seed

“The Bad Seed” began as a  novel  by American writer William March, then became a 1954 Broadway play by playwright Maxwell Anderson, and ultimately a 1956  Academy Award-nominated film. The disturbing plot involves Rhoda Penmark, a charming little girl who is also a murderous psychopath. In the play’s climax, which the film version didn’t have the guts to follow, Rhoda’s single mother resolves, once it is clear that her daughter is killing people, to kill Rhoda herself, in a twist the anticipates such films as “The Omen.”  She fails, however, and the sweet-looking serial killer in pigtails is alive and plotting at the play’s end.

A real life bad seed scenario is playing out in Chicago. A 9-year-old  boy has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder, two counts of arson and one count of aggravated arson. The evidence suggests that he deliberately started a fire in a mobile home east of Peoria, Illinois, that claimed the lives of the boy’s two half-siblings, a cousin, his mother’s fiance and his great-grandmother.

The boy’s mother says her son suffers from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and ADHD. She also says things like “he’s not a monster,” “he just made a terrible mistake” and my personal favorite, “he does have a good heart.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Is it ethical to charge a child so young  with first degree murder?

Juvenile justice advocates argue that children as young as this boy need treatment, not punishment, no matter how serious the crime is. The problem is that juvenile psychopaths are not necessarily treatable, and have a disturbing tendency to grow into people like Ted Bundy.

“It doesn’t matter how serious the charge is,”  Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative told reporters in reference to this tragedy. “Neuroscience, brain development, all of it points to the fact that young children shouldn’t be held culpable. … I’m not saying there shouldn’t be some sort of accountability. But they need services, not sanctions.”

The mother of the boy also muttered  about “some kind of punishment” being appropriate, but what? A stern talking to? No video games for a month? In the cringing final credits sequence of the film version of “The Bad Seed,” Rhoda (played by still-active actress Patty McCormick) gets a spanking from her smiling mother.

That will teach her not to murder people!

16 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Bad Seed

  1. If he truly has mental problems, he needs treatment in a facility so he will not be a danger to others.

    I am sorry for people who have unasked for mental health issues that are no fault of their own, but families, schools and communities as a whole are held hostage by troubled persons like this.

  2. Perhaps he can ethically be charged with murder, but he can’t ethically be punished the way we normally would punish a murderer. Generally, though, I don’t think a child that young should be charged with murder — I’m just not convinced that a person that young can actually be said to have mens rea, although I think most states set that standard lower — five or six, I believe.

    But he is not too young to be institutionalized, as he is clearly either mentally disturbed or lacking the fundamental ability to distinguish right from wrong (in other words, pathologically amoral). There has to be some punishment that is recognizable as such, though, to go along with trying to cure his murderously delinquent behavior.

    I hate things like this, there just doesn’t seem to be a “good” answer. Juvenile delinquencies of any sort are tough enough without people being killed as a result.

  3. I agree with the others commenting here. It seems obvious either his home conditions are horrendous and his mother has no idea what she is doing, or he has some sort of significant mental illness and his mother has no idea what she is doing. The kid needs help that his mother obviously cannot provide. I am not sure that juvenile hall or prison is going to remedy that — and that still does not address the issues of his age and culpability.

    He should be institutionalized in a mental health facility until it can be determined what is going on.

      • If someone can be declared a danger to himself or others there are sometimes many options, sometimes fewer, depending on the state. That said, those laws are ripe for abuse. It’s my understanding that rich husbands who wanted to ditch their wives but not pay alimony would either use their extensive good old boy networks or their wealth to get someone to certify their wives insane so they could have them committed. That way they could carry on with their mistresses and go on like nothing had happened.

  4. Jack is absolutely right that juvenile psychopathy is virtually untreatable, in part because his brain is not close to fully developed. However, I see no diagnosis of psychopathy. The three diagnoses I do see would be unlikely to produce this behavior. So several things come immediately to mind: first and foremost, a comprehensive Psychological Assessment needs to be performed. Then, we will have some actual idea what we are actually looking at. In my opinion, though, it is going to be counter-productive to try and/or punish a 9 year-old kid as an adult. Let your imagination run wild; a 9 year-old boy in, say, Sing-Sing? Limited future, there.

  5. I don’t think a 9 year-old has the mental capacity to understand the permanence of death, the gravity of murder, among other elements required to form mens rea to be charged with murder. Nor is it appropriate to speak of punishments for it.

    Of course that doesn’t mean we just let the kid walk away. Clearly he’s deeply disturbed and a danger to others. He needs long-term institutionalization. We used to have hospitals for the criminally insane, whatever happened to those?

  6. A truly horrific story. There are no winners and only losers here. For me, the question is whether the boy has the maturity/development to understand the consequences of the actions. A nine year old most probably does not. Even more likely here that the boy, with deep psychological issues, it is even more likely that the boy did not comprehend what he was doing. So, here it is unethical to charge the boy with murder.


  7. I just have to respectfully disagree with the opinion that nine years is too young to understand the severity of the crime of murder.

    In my experience most kindergarteners would understand that. My two-year-old just figured out that people don’t like to be slapped (he occasionally relapses) and his friend, who is also two, but six months older, helps explain it to him (“no, don’t do that! That’s bad!”)

    This may not be a typical nine-year-old, but generally speaking, kids that age know what they’re doing. That’s what, 4th grade? Aren’t they starting on long division by then? They really can’t figure out, “murder bad?” And if not, is this a post-Christianity thing where schools are afraid to use concepts like “right” and “wrong?”

    • Related story: a couple of years ago I was on a middle school campus about an hour after school was out and overheard the conversation of a father and son walking down the hallway. The kid was coming out of detention and the young dad said, “You shouldn’t steal.” The child asked, “Why not?” and, no lie, Dad struggled to come with an answer and ended up just saying, “Because you’ll get in trouble.” And this was a well-meaning, seemingly engaged father in a very nice California suburb.

    • This moving the age of accountability for all milestones later and later is a modern flaw I noticed almost twenty years ago. Teenage high jinks are steal a twenty from Dad’s wallet, not scamming a senior because they don’t need it as much. As much as I hate smoking, I don’t like moving it to 21. I would actually prefer kids learn in their late teens the flavors, uses, and punch of various boozes under supervision rather than this ‘happy birthday! ejoy your blackout.’

      Also, I have a strong impression that the boomers cannot accept the risks that their parents had to accept. If they move the ages allowed to do X up, they can pretend their kids are still children… and pretend THEY aren’t the old farts now.

  8. This is a tough one, hitting many systemic weak areas: kids, recidivism, 2nd chances, and don’t-give-a-kriff-about-others’. We want kids to have a chance for a bright future, but we also wanted to protect the bright futures of the cousins who died. Family denial of juvvie crimes is almost cliche, so we can ignore mom’s comments, too.

    Nine is in the stage for concrete thinking (7-12.) But this is not about understanding the lever or colors in the rainbow, but really basic NOT to burn things with people inside. This is as basic as not touching a hot stove, certainly not too much for a nine-year old. If he’s that developmentally delayed, he must be in a home/setting much more supervised that what he was here. If his thinking development is normalish and he was so angry at mom’s fiancee he did not care he killed his own relatives, he is the ‘bad seed’ as that kind of emotional growth cannot be created later afaik. Institutionalize is the kindest to him and best for society.

    (He did do it, without any particular benefit to him or others, so the institutionalizing wives isn’t relevant)

    Psychopathy might not be diagnosed yet, I thought that takes longer than ADHD. While his youth and issues should exempt him from adult level execution, it was multiple murders, not that he accidentally used too many extension cords for xmas lights. I’ve heard too many lesser charges argued to slaps on the wrist and this is too high and too close a death toll to be ignored. I believe an extended sentence, such that he might ‘graduate’ at eighteen if he passes through a bunch of Bundy checks. But given the impractical expectation that a leopard can change its spots if you click your heels together and wish really hard, he will be let out without effective treatment.

    This isn’t a pre-crime issue, there were multiple deaths and we’re balancing issues of recovery into society along with protection for society. Punishment and hopes to prevent a repeat are different for juvvies. We still want to give him a chance if we can confirm he’s learned how to value other people’s lives. What makes this painful is that he clearly did not learn that from or for the deceased family. I don’t feel that good you can learn that from overworked mental heath staff either.

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