A model student with a bright future, Ronald was 13 years old when he thrust a butcher knife into the heart of a 16-year-old neighbor who had rubbed Ronald's face in the mud during a sandlot football game.
Ronald was a passive child whose parents had told him not to let "anyone push him around." When he was insulted, he responded aggressively, but often found himself "getting whipped."
Threats to Ronald's fragile sense of masculinity became increasingly difficult for him to cope with as he approached adolescence. So in a moment of passion, humiliated in front of his peers, Ronald carried out the ultimate act of aggression - murder - without hesitation.
Unlike some juvenile murderers, Ronald was visibly disturbed over his act and was anxious for someone to help him understand the terrible thing he had done. For two years he faithfully attended group therapy sessions and learned to deal with his aggressive impulses. His future for continued adjustment to the community around him is now considered excellent.
Ronald's case, and those of 18 other children under the age of 16 who were accused or found guilty of murder in the District of Columbia from 1973 to 1976, is the subject of a newly released study of the psychological characteristics of the juvenile murderer.
The study identified three groups of juvenile murderers, based on their psychological characteristics, the nature of the crime and the history of the child's case in the city's juvenile courts.
The study then distinquished between the three groups in terms of those children, like Ronald, who are most likely to be rehabilitated with proper treatment, those who are unable to realize the value of another human life and finally those children who did not intend to kill but caused a death either by accident or in self-defense.
The study is intended to assist the city's criminal justice system in answering critical questions concerning recidivism, dangerousness and rehabilitative potential." The names of the children whose cases are cited in the study and in this article were changed to protect their identity.
The study was prepared by Dr. Alan B. Zients, a child psychoanalyst who is chief of the youth section of the D.C. Office of Forensic Psychiatry, and Elyce H. Zenoff, a professor of law at George Washington University.
The cases studied were those of children, charged with murder, who had been referred by the juvenile court to the forensic psychiatry office for evaluation. Of the referrals, 17 were male and two were females, representing 45 per cent of the 42 children who were charged with murder in the District from 1973 to 1976.
According to the study, all 19 children lived in the inner-city and were from low socio-economic groups. The study was based on a review of each child's social history, psychological test and from psychiatric reports supplied to the court.
Ronald and five other male children were identified as "sexual-identity conflict murderers," according to the study.
Achievers in school, these children were admired by their parents and teachers for their passive and co-operative nature - characteristics that led to rejection by their peers.
Often bullied and taunted for what may be the subtle feminine characteristics of their mannerisms, "they feel coerced to demonstrate concretely their masculine prowess through a display of aggression," the study found. Never "secure on the street," these children often turned to a weapon, frequently a gun or a knife, for protection, the study said.
The mother is usually the dominant figure in these families and the father a passive character, the study found. Both parents usually encourage the child to "fight back," the study said.
Shunned by their peers and unsure of their sexual identity, these children face increased stress as they enter adolescence, the study found. In the six cases reviewed, the children, none of whom had prior records of assaultive behavior, murdered relatives or acquaintances, the act "occurring in immediate response to an actual or perceived threat to their fragile sexual identity," the study said.
Because they react with anxiety and remorse to what they have done and because their act appeared to be the result of conflicts related to their age, children like Ronald are good candidates for psychiatric rehabilitation and successful re-entry into society, the study said.
In contrast to cases like Ronald's, the study cited the case of John, 15, who was accused of murder for a second time.
John, and six other males who were studied, fell into a group of "primitive nonempathic murderers" whose inability to appreciate the harm they have done to others "signals continued risk to the community."
Behind in school and experiencing severe problems with reading, these children all had assaulted before and committed numerous offenses related to property. They were accused of killing strangers, either during a robbery or for no apparent reason. They are unable to deal with stress, and their behavior is unpredictable and often violent, the study found.
Accused of murdering a 6-year-old with a lead pipe, John expressed no emotion over the child's death. A year earlier he had been accused, along with two friends, of beating an elderly woman to death, also with a lead pipe, during the course of a robbery, the report said.
John's mother said, he had never caused her any trouble and John himself said he would kill anyone who tried to harm her, equating an attack on his mother as an attack against himself, the study found.
Much of John's early unbringing was "unplanned, sporadic and inconsistent," the study said without further elaboration, and his mother blamed her son's trouble with the law on the influence of his friends and his admiring for an older stepbrother, in jail for stabbing a person during a robbery.
On the surface, John's youth and his cooperative manner could suggest a potential for rehabiliation, the study suggested.
But, the study said, "if the capacity for empathy is lacking, not even the most intensive theraputic regimens can provide it." Youths accused of murder, like John, continue to commit violent offenses despite psychiatric intervention and require long term institutionalization, the study said.
While they might benefit from some therapy, rehabilitation of these juvenile murderers is unlikely, the study found, because they fail to recognize the value of another human life.
The third group studied was that of "innocent murderers," like Peter, 9, who kicked a 3-year-old playmate in the stomach during a rough game of jumping and wrestling. The injury resulted in the child's death and Peter was found guilty of manslaughter.
This group "most clearly demonstrates the need for the court to better understand the complexities of growth and development," the study said.
Peter's psychiatric evaluation revealed no significant problems, but during lengthy legal proceedings, he became apathetic at school, lost interest in his friends and was confused as to why people thought he was "an evil child."
His reaction to the crime was evaluated as if he were an adult, rather than a young child, who may not have understood the concept of murder, the study said. After one year of therapy, Peter showed no signs of other violent behavior.
The study proposed that legal proceedings against juvenile murderers be expedited so that the traumatic affect of such an experience on a child can be minimized. The procedures should be explained to the child in language they can understand and parents should be kept in frequent contact with their children or surrogate parents should be provided if the child is incarcerated, the study said.
Each child accused of murder should be evaluated by a psychiatrist and the findings should be discussed with other professionals so that a fully objective evaluation can be made of the child's situation before his case is disposed of by the juvenile court, the study recommended.