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Can a toddler commit murder?

Last Friday afternoon, a 12-year-old girl entered the police station and confessed to drowning her infant cousin in a bucket nearly a decade ago _ a death previously ruled accidental. The cops were confounded.

Locking up the girl seemed ludicrous. She was cooperative and hardly menacing, with her foster mother and a social worker by her side. Police took the child's statement and then let her go, dropping her off in a squad car. Says Sgt. Bob Disbennett: "There's no way you can prosecute someone who was a 3-year-old when they committed a crime."

Hamilton County prosecutors saw it differently. When they heard of the case, they began looking for a way to get her whatever help the state might provide a child with a troubled past. Their solution was to have the police arrest her. Charge: murder, first-degree felony.

And so the next day, the little girl with the initials J. M. quietly returned to the police station where she turned herself in again for a crime she says she committed but kept secret for more than nine years.

Rights, responsibilities

This time J. M. was given the right to remain silent. Then she was given a ride to the Juvenile Detention Center, where she spent the night in custody, alone. J. M. was sent home on Sunday and returned to the detention center on Monday morning for a hearing; she had no lawyer until that morning. Sgt. Disbennett says the sixth-grader "didn't ask for one."

People involved in the case are wondering whether a 3-year-old could have a motive for murder, even an unconscious one, and whether she could really remember such an act. They are wondering why a foster parent would take a case like this to the police, and why a legal system seeking a compassionate response could end up reading a little girl her rights and bouncing her from the station house to a detention center to a court hearing.

"At the time the kid was charged, we just wanted a vehicle to get her into the system so she could get help," says state prosecutor Steve Martin.

"This was something the system was not prepared to deal with. There seemed to be no other way when it was a Friday, and the courts had closed and this child just confessed to murder.

"We're not trying to lock her up," Martin says, "but if she's been carrying this around eight or nine years, we need to make sure she gets help."

Hearing postponed

"It's ridiculous," says Terry Weber, the girl's court-appointed attorney. "This should be over by now."

The case is in limbo at the moment; a hearing has been postponed until March 10 so that J. M. can undergo court-ordered psychiatric evaluation.

"This is a significant trauma to her," says Weber, who first met his unsmiling, hesitant client on Monday as she dodged television crews. "It doesn't matter whether or not she did it _ I don't think we'll ever know. It should have ended on Monday."

The case actually revolves around two deaths in the same dysfunctional family, and how they may be linked in the clouded memory of a girl, sexually molested and in and out of foster care and therapy for most of her life.

Born in 1981, J. M. never knew her biological father, who still resides in Cincinnati. When she was an infant, her mother did stints at the Ohio Reformatory for Women at Marysville on drug convictions. While her mother was away, she lived at 1725 Elm St. with her 16-year-old aunt (her mother's sister) and her grandmother, who was in her late 30s.

Neighbors recall a boisterous household, with boyfriends and other visitors frequently stopping by the apartment, now empty and locked up, gutted several times by arsonists. Two sisters at Hudson Bros. Cleaners across the street describe the family as "rough and loud, always drinking and arguing."

On July 13, 1982, not long after J. M.'s mother returned from a prison stay, the fighting turned deadly. Reportedly angry about her daughter's treatment while she was locked up, J. M.'s 24-year-old mother grabbed an 8-inch butcher knife and got into a scuffle with the girl's aunt. The aunt got hold of the knife and stabbed the mother in the neck. It isn't known whether J. M. witnessed her mother's killing.

Birth in prison

The aunt went to the same Ohio reformatory for involuntary manslaughter in March 1983, and county Social Services officials, through a court order, sent J. M. to live with her grandmother, who had moved. Same dilapidated neighborhood. Different apartment, different men around.

Meanwhile, her aunt gave birth in prison to a son, Lamar. Lamar went to live with J. M., her grandmother, the grandmother's boyfriend, and J. M.'s 13-year-old uncle (her mother's brother). One July day in 1984, the uncle left 3-year-old J. M. and her barely 10-month-old cousin Lamar alone in the kitchen and stepped outside. Their grandmother slept in the next room. On the kitchen floor sat a plastic drywall-compound bucket filled with a solution of bleach and water for mopping.

When the young uncle returned, he found the boy stretched over the pail with his head submerged in the pungent liquid. The boy had drowned in a 14-inch bucket exactly half his height. Police ruled the death accidental until last Friday, when J. M. came forward.

Foster homes

In 1986, J. M. was again removed from her home, when social workers found evidence of sexual abuse by the grandmother's boyfriend. She bounced from one foster home to the next until 1990, when she came to live with her present guardian.

This foster mother has said J. M. confessed privately to her during a conversation they were having about trust, something that is difficult for J. M. Shortly after her revelation, with the guidance of their assigned social worker, all three sought police assistance, and the legal whirlwind began.

Despite the length of time since the drowning, police say the present-day mental evaluation must occur. "Is she of sound mind? Is she suicidal, homicidal? Is she a well-developed child or does she have a hidden agenda she needs to address?" says Sgt. Disbennett of the Cincinnati police. "We just don't know."

But the child has already been in state-provided therapy for several years, something prosecutors say they didn't know at the time of arrest _ even though she was accompanied by a social worker during her initial confession. Still, they haven't dismissed the charges. "This is what the court ordered," says Martin.

Limits of memory

Others wonder what a psychiatric evaluation can be expected to accomplish. "They should lock these prosecutors out because they have no business getting involved with this," says Howard A. Davidson, director of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law.

"How can someone at age 12 be certain of what she did at age 3? It's a waste of taxpayers' money."

Stephen Ceci, a professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University, says, "She may have horrible shards of memory. A chlorine bucket, an infant slumped over or an uncle running and screaming. But revenge is an adult motive," he says, alluding to the possibility that J. M. might have lashed out at the son of her mother's killer.

Neither J. M.'s foster mother nor her social worker would consent to be interviewed to explain why they took the girl to police.

But J. M.'s lawyer, Weber, has spoken to both of them, and he explains: "From a social work standpoint, if somebody makes something like a murder known to you, then you are risking your job if you don't report it.

"From the foster mother's standpoint, if you have a child that isn't yours making statements like that then you feel the need to tell the social worker. . . . Both were acting on the fear of somebody confessing something as serious as murder. . . . Neither thought it would be handled this way."

Weber adds that J. M. feels secure and protected about events so far, but he worries about what may happen if the case drags on.

"She may well prove invincible and grow up to be a sensible, well-adjusted young lady," Professor Ceci says. "But right now, with these court proceedings, the odds are against her."