Recently, an unthinkable tragedy occurred when a teenage boy killed his parents and younger sister in their Doddridge County Home. Law enforcement officials have arrested the boy, 16-year old Joseph Spencer, and have taken him into custody, but have yet to understand why he acted as he did. Spencer currently awaits a pre-trial hearing, where he will be charged with first-degree murder. Authorities are uncertain as to whether or not Spencer will be tried as an adult.
Spencer’s parents worked as a pilot for UPS and a schoolteacher. Spencer also has two other siblings — another brother in high school and a sister in college. Neither has commented on what could have motivated their brother. Neighbors described the Spencer family as good Christian people and Spencer as a quiet, intelligent, and ordinary boy. The community is in mourning, and grief counselors have been dispatched at the school where Spencer’s mother, Dixie Spencer, taught.
It is always most frightening when people seem to kill without motivation, especially a child killing his or her parents. Right now, few details about the Spencers’ life are known. Even if it turned out that Spencer’s parents were abusive, that would not excuse his actions — all it would do was increase our understanding of the situation. Sometimes a child’s home life might be perfectly fine, but the child himself might struggle with drug abuse or mental health problems. Both could color the child’s worldview and lead him to act in ways that he otherwise would not.
In any event, regardless of whether Spencer is tried as a juvenile or an adult, he will be represented by a West Virginia criminal defense attorney. The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution requires that all of those charged with a crime have the representation of counsel. If Spencer cannot afford to hire counsel — as is likely — then a public defender will be appointed to represent him. If Spencer is tried and convicted as an adult, he would enter an already overcrowded prison system, where inmate on inmate violence has steadily increased. Due to jam-packed prisons, many inmates are forced to spend a period of time in regional jails, which lack many prison amenities.
Even if Spencer is tried as a juvenile, he faces a grim future. A study published in the Spring of 2010 by the National Juvenile Defender Center found that the juvenile court system in West Virginia suffers from “a general malaise.” Despite our state’s generally progressive juvenile justice code, the public defenders are overwhelmed by their caseload and lack juvenile-specific training, often acting in the child’s “best interests” instead of the child’s best legal interests. As a result, public defenders are frequently guilty of a lack of diligence, and of overemphasis on “improvement periods” and guilty pleas. Few juvenile cases end up even going to trial, and of those that do, few outcomes are appealed. Many juveniles end up serving lengthy juvenile prison sentences for relatively minor offenses.
Regardless of what lies ahead in Joseph Spencer’s future, let us hope that at some point, he is able to fully understand what he did and feel remorse.