Nine-year-old charged with murder in five Illinois fire deaths

CHICAGO (AP) — A nine-year-old child accused of causing a mobile home fire that killed three children and two adults in central Illinois has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder.

The juvenile was also charged with two counts of arson and one count of aggravated arson, the (Peoria) Journal Star reported.

The April 6 fire killed a one-year-old, two two-year-olds, a 34-year-old man and a 69-year-old woman at the Timberline Mobile Home Park near the village of Goodfield, about 240 kilometres southwest of Chicago.

Woodford County State’s Attorney Greg Minger would not reveal other details about the suspect, including a possible relationship to the victims.

No child as young as this one has been accused in a mass killing since at least 2006, according to the AP/USATODAY/Northeastern University mass murder database. It tracks all United States (US) homicides since then in which four or more people were killed (not including the offender) over a short period of time (24 hours), regardless of weapon, location, victim-offender relationship or motive.

Minger said he scoured multiple reports on the fire before proceeding with prosecution. Woodford County Coroner Tim Ruestman said the fire was started intentionally.

“It was a heavy decision,” Minger said. “It’s a tragedy, but at the end of the day, it’s charging a very young person with one of the most serious crimes we have. But I just think it needs to be done at this point, for finality.”

A major challenge for prosecutors will be trying to prove the child formed an intent to kill in advance, which is required in first-degree murder cases, explained Gus Kostopoulos, a former prosecutor-turned-juvenile defence lawyer in Chicago.

“Nine-year-olds don’t know that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. They don’t know people die and don’t come back to life,” he said. “I don’t know if nine-year-olds can form intent to commit murder.”

A leading Illinois advocate for children ensnared in the criminal justice system sharply criticised the decision to charge a child that young with murder.