PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — A trio of appellate court judges upheld this week an earlier ruling by a Woodford County judge saying prosecutors could have proven their case against a boy accused in a deadly arson four years ago that killed five people.
The 4th District Appellate Court in Springfield held on Monday that prosecutors gave enough evidence to Judge Charles Feeney to support his finding in March that the boy, now 13, was “not not guilty,” of setting the deadly April 6, 2019, trailer fire that killed five members of his family.
That finding is legalese for saying there is enough evidence that could convict the teen, but his mental status — he’s currently not fit to stand trial — precludes that.
The boy, who was 9 at the time of the fire, hoped the appellate judges would overturn Feeney’s ruling in March, contending the state didn’t prove their case as well as the Woodford County judge had made some legal mistakes.
But the 4th district said no. Rather, they held Feeney was correct in his assertions.
“To paraphrase what the State said at the discharge hearing, respondent would have to be ‘the unluckiest kid in the world’ because fires seem to ignite wherever he goes, regardless of whom he is around. Accordingly, a rational trier of fact could easily have found on this evidence the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt,” wrote Judge Robert Steigmann with Judges Peter Cavanagh and Amy Lannerd concurring.
The ruling means Feeney’s decision stands and the boy will keep undergoing mental health treatment as previously ordered.
The fire killed two adults and three children who were inside a mobile home at the Timberline Mobile Home Park, located northeast of Goodfield. The only survivors were the boy and his mother.
The boy was charged with first-degree murder, arson and aggravated arson in October 2019. His age precluded any possible jail or prison term.
But he was never found fit to stand trial. That’s a key step in the process as a person must be able to understand the proceedings and assist in their defense. If not, then things stop and a person is given mental health treatment to see if they could be made “fit.”
There is a five-year window for treatment and if the boy could be made fit to stand trial, then a trial could take place. Given that an exam was done in 2021 that found him unfit, prosecutors have until 2026.
At the time, the child was the youngest since 2006 to be charged with a mass homicide in the United States.
Such charges against a child that young are rare. That’s because prosecutors need to prove intent or that the child understood that his or her actions could cause death. That’s difficult when involving children as young as the one in this case.