PULLMAN – When 12-year-old Herbert Niccolls was sentenced to life in prison for shooting Asotin County Sheriff John Wormell in 1931, it prompted outcries from across the nation.
One writer described the sentence as “an ungodly, rotten stain” on the intelligence of American jurists and a “rank and foul miscarriage of justice.”
Another suggested the jury should be punished instead, for being “uncivilized barbarians,” while members of the St. Cecilia musical society of Oakland, California, prayed “every possible bad fortune” be visited upon the judge and his family.
A Washington State University exhibit raises thoughtful questions about the case and highlights evolving social standards on how juvenile crime should be handled.
Would Niccolls, for example, be treated the same way for a similar crime today? Would he be tried as an adult and, if convicted, sentenced to life in prison?
The exhibit, which runs through March 26, includes information about Niccolls’ early life in Idaho. His father was sent to the state mental hospital in Orofino for killing a woman. His mother, living in poverty, was unable to feed the remaining family, so she gave up custody of the four oldest kids, including Niccolls. He entered the state foster care system and subsequently had a series of run-ins with the law, including spending 15 months for theft at the Idaho Industrial Training School, a home for orphans, runaways and other juveniles.
“He was well on his way to becoming a proper criminal,” said Cheryl Gunselman, the WSU manuscripts librarian who created the Niccolls exhibit. “Then he crossed an unforgivable line.”
After being discharged from the Idaho training school, Niccolls went to live with his grandmother in Asotin, Washington. Three months later, while stealing gum and cigarettes from a store, he shot and killed 73-year-old Sheriff Wormell.
Had it been almost any other crime, the case would have been handled by the juvenile court system. However, state law at the time mandated that children 12 and older be tried as adults if they were accused of murder or manslaughter.
During the trial, Niccolls’ grandmother testified that he was “possessed by the devil.” His attorney tried to show the boy wasn’t mentally competent, but the jury rejected that defense; after deliberating for just three hours, they found him guilty of murder.
Niccolls was sentenced to life in prison – the youngest person to receive a life sentence in Washington and the youngest convict sent to the state penitentiary in Walla Walla.
Local prosecutors say it’s unlikely the Niccolls case would be handled the same way today.
“The idea of trying a 12-year-old as an adult would be difficult in every sense – legally, morally, scientifically,” said Whitman County Prosecutor Denis Tracy. “I’d really want to look at all the circumstances. I wouldn’t automatically pursue it in adult court.”
State law no longer mandates juveniles be remanded to adult court in murder cases. It does give prosecutors an opportunity to request such a move, but Asotin County Prosecutor Ben Nichols said it would be difficult to convince a judge to agree.
“You’d have to make an incredible showing to transfer a juvenile of that age into adult court,” he said.
The bar may be lower for, say, a 16-year-old with a long criminal history who’s accused of a violent crime.
But a 12-year-old with a limited criminal history? “It would be incredibly hard to transfer them to adult court in this day and age,” Nichols said.
Another major difference, he said, is that a 12-year-old today would never be sent straight to the state penitentiary, regardless of whether he was convicted in adult or juvenile court. Instead, he’d be held in a juvenile detention facility until he was 18, and then transferred to the adult penitentiary.
“In the state of Washington, the criminal justice system has abandoned rehabilitation as a goal for adult offenders,” he said. “But in the juvenile system, it’s the exact opposite: Rehabilitation is the central goal.”
Consequently, Nichols thinks it’s unlikely any judge would sentence a 12-year-old to life in prison today.
Sending Niccolls to the state penitentiary, where he would be surrounded by adult offenders, was a significant concern in 1931 as well – not only for the public, but for Judge Elgin V. Kuykendall, who presided over the murder trial.
Kuykendall ordered Niccolls be separated from the adult prisoners at Walla Walla, and a private tutor be provided so he could continue his education. Niccolls also took his meals with the prison warden and staff.
The special attention ultimately paid off. After 10 years in prison, Niccolls was given a conditional pardon by Gov. Clarence Martin. He eventually was released from parole, moved to California and never again had any trouble with the law.
“If he’d been three or four years older, who knows what would have happened,” said Gunselman, the WSU librarian. “But it worked because he got special treatment.”
Shift to what’s best
The justice system as early as 1899 recognized juveniles needed different treatment, with the first juvenile court created that year. By 1931, it was unusual for juveniles to be tried as adults, except for particularly heinous crimes.
Yet despite the apparently favorable outcome in the Niccolls case and the public outcry that helped prompt his release, society as a whole hasn’t been willing to extend such special treatment to all juvenile offenders. If anything, things have become more difficult.
“A juvenile might well spend more time in the system today than in 1931,” said Craig Hemmens, chairman of the department of criminal justice and criminology at WSU.
“The Niccolls case was something of an outlier,” Hemmens said. “This was during the Progressive Era, when states tried to use more scientific, evidence-based practices – evidence of how best to deal with people.”
There was also a recognition that juveniles aren’t the same as adult offenders, he said. Their brains aren’t fully developed and they lack awareness of consequences. The thinking was that they’re kids, so society should cut them a break.
That began to change in the 1980s and ’90s, Hemmens said, with the war on drugs and get-tough-on-crime attitude. There was a sense that the juvenile justice system wasn’t effective, in part because the court jurisdiction ended when they turned 18.
“So states began toughening the juvenile court rules,” he said. They once again mandated certain crimes be tried in adult court, and adopted mandatory sentences that kept kids in jail after they turned 18.
“For most of the 20th century, the focus was on what’s best for the juvenile,” Hemmens said. “By the late 20th century, the focus was on what’s best for society. The first consideration was public safety. My guess is, if someone shot a law enforcement officer today, they may well spend more time in the juvenile and adult system than Niccolls did in 1931. I don’t see a governor today pardoning them after 10 years.”
Although there were some mitigating circumstances in the Niccolls case, given his negative family situation, Pullman police Chief Gary Jenkins said that wouldn’t be much of a consideration if a similar crime occurred today.
“Looking at the past can maybe help us understand why something happened,” he said. “But for me, I’m looking at it from the event moving forward.”
There’s a difference between a 12-year-old murderer and a 21-year-old murderer, Jenkins said, because the 12-year-old is still developing. They’re still learning how to act, how to fit in society – even the difference between right and wrong.
“You can still change their life significantly,” he said.
So if a 12-year-old were to shoot a law enforcement officer today, deciding on an appropriate course of action and prison sentence likely would be just as difficult as it was in 1931.
“I’d struggle, too,” Jenkins said. “It gets down to what is justice. How much of it is punitive and how much is about rehabilitation?”
Contact William Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 791-9168.