Washington, February 13, 2011 – A feeling of anger and confusion swept over the town of Jefferson City, Missouri last Wednesday as Alyssa Bustamante was given a life sentence for the brutal murder of nine-year-old Elizabeth Olten.
In October 2009, then fifteen-year-old Bustamante lured Olten into the woods where she brutally stabbed her to death because she “wanted to know what it felt like to kill someone.
The trial reveals that Bustamante used her younger sister as bait to lure Elizabeth Olten away from her home before stabbing her to death with a knife. At her sentencing she offered an apology to the parents of her victim as she was escorted to serve the life term she may one day be paroled from.
Throughout history there have been rare glimpses into the mind of children who become murderers.
In December 1968 Mary Flora Bell was found guilty of murdering two boys, three and four. Bell was only ten-years-old. She is currently on record as the youngest documented serial killer.
What drives these children to detach themselves from any association with humanity and become killers has been the perpetual quandary of the psychiatric community for years. Bell was the daughter of a prostitute whose father was unknown and thought to be a convicted felon.
Bustamante is the child of teenage parents, a drug abuser whose mother and father left her to serve time in prison. Striking similarities in the lives of two young girls who looked into the eyes of the abyss and saw themselves looking back.
The process of making a human life insignificant in someone’s mind, especially in the case of a child is not well understood. As her dairy was read recounting how she enjoyed the murder of Elizabeth Olten minutes before attending a church dance, Bustamante was called a monster by the prosecution.
A suicide attempt in 2007 resulted in the prescription of Prozac, which prosecutors argued she was not taking at the time of the murder. In a study done in 2000 on juvenile homicide, Psychologists David M. Shumaker and Ronald J. Prinz found striking similarities that transcended race, gender and income level.
Children who commit murder are more likely to come from homes where domestic abuse, physical violence, sexual abuse, the complete absence of parenting or poor parenting and over all instability were present.
As a survivor of both physical and sexual abuse my youth was spent in an environment of poor parenting and I have seen others in my circumstances part ways with humanity. So why do children choose to be consumed by the darkness and abandon all hope on giving life meaning?
The simple answer is that they have convinced themselves their own lives no longer have value and by extrapolation everyone else’s as well. Anger is a motivating factor in juvenile violence and when a powerless child sees those as having power over the musing violence, they assimilate.
In cases of long-term abuse, anger can build inside a child until an explosion occurs. If you place a cork into the mouth of a faucet and turn the tap on full, eventually the water has to go somewhere. Such is the case in children who come from abusive households.
Schooled in inappropriate ways of expressing negative feelings, many children are nurtured on dysfunction. They learn to seek out chaotic situations because it is what they are most comfortable with.
In 1993, two-year-old James Bulger was kidnapped raped and murdered near Liverpool, England. His killers were Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, two ten-year-old boys. They spotted James Bulger as his mother turned her back in a butcher’s shop and lured him outside while they punched and kicked him, even dropping him on his head as bystanders watched. After a 2.5-mile walk Thompson and Venables dropped a 22-pound iron bar on his head killing him. They placed his body across train tracks where it was later cut in half.
The coroner found 42 injuries including ten skull fractures when he examined James Bulger. Video evidence shown at trial showed the pair luring the two year old away from his mother while she was distracted.
Thompson and Venables were from unstable environments where alcoholism, absent fathers and negligent parenting were the status quo.
During the trial of Thompson and Venables the defense tried to cite the influence of violent videos on Thompson and Venables behavior as a motivating factor for their crime. There has been much discussion in recent times about violent video games and their effect on children.
Christopher Ferguson is an associate professor at Texas A&M International University in Laredo and after reviewing the evidence he feels the effects are generally low. He found violence in the home such as abuse and poor parenting is the largest indicators of violent behaviors in children.
The Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs released a study in 2009 called “From Time-Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System. “ Within its pages it states that in twenty-two states including the District of Colombia children as young as seven can be sentenced as adults. More than half the states allow children under 12 to be treated as adults.
Beginning in 1985, violent crimes by children increased and from 1995 to 2004 ninety-two murders were committed by children under 12. The study found a disturbing trend among violent offenders transferred to adult court. More often than not, only the high profile cases were transferred while others were placed on probation or released.
There were strong inconsistencies in how children under twelve were prosecuted under the law. Barry Dale Loukaitis was 14 when he murdered his algebra teacher and two students. Dressed up like a Wild West gunslinger, Loukaitis walked from his house to his fifth period algebra class armed with a hunting rifle and two handguns.
As he began shooting he was heard saying, “This sure beats the hell out of algebra, doesn’t it?” a quote from the Stephen King novel “Rage.” Loukaitis’ parents divorced when his mother found his father was having an affair.
She grew increasingly suicidal afterwards and would often speak of a joint suicide that included her son. Loukaitis was being treated for clinical depression and suffered relentless bullying at school. At trial his defense attorney pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity citing messianic and delusional thoughts.
The jury thought otherwise and sentenced him to two life sentences and an additional 205 years without the possibility of parole.
The responsibility of being a parent must take precedence over any other priority in our lives. It is the one job we must not fail to do our absolute best every single day of our lives until we can no longer walk this earth. The impact a parent can have on a child’s life is immeasurable and begins the moment that child takes its first breath of air. If we fail in our responsibilities as parents and act selfishly the results of our actions are not hard to predict.
An overwhelmed Division of Child and Family Services need the funding and resources to properly care for those children cast aside by those unable to parent. The life of a child is too valuable to waste and we must do better as a society to ensure a stable environment for all children.
If we turn our backs on the neglected and abused children of this world the results present themselves on the front page of our morning newspaper. Mary Bell was paroled from prison in 1980 and has gone through a series of name changes to protect the daughter she now has.
Thompson and Venables were paroled in 2001 and have also undergone name changes. Loukaitis will never see the light of day. Alyssa Bustamante is starting her life sentence and may be paroled in 35 years.