Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Unthinkable: Children Who Kill

Evil or Ill?

Computer experts examined Harling's hard drive and detectives pieced together a convincing portrait of a serial killer wannabe. When he'd watched and then attacked Cheryl Moss, Harling had apparently adopted the MO of one of his favorite serial killers, "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez. He'd also recently read accounts on Wikipedia about Dennis Nilsen and Colin Ireland, both notorious British serial killers. In addition, he spent hours on Web sites devoted to weaponry, serial killers, and crime, and he immersed in extremely violent video games. He also admired Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold for killing bullies in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, and had decided that he, too, wanted to kill a succession of bullies. So how was it that no one noticed his growing penchant for violence?

Stuart Harling
Stuart Harling

Harling had dropped out of school and withdrawn from friends and family, living in his fantasies. His plan to commit murder had developed after learning combat maneuvers from a CD used to train U. S. Marines in lethal procedures. An examination of Harling's Internet searches, in which he had entered "serial killer" and the names of various British towns, indicated that he'd aspired to become his town's first serial murderer. With this information, the prosecutor argued that Harling had committed premeditated, cold-blooded murder.

Harling's defense was that he had Asperger's syndrome, which had affected his ability to understand what he was doing. This, in turn, diminished his criminal responsibility. He said that during the stabbing, he'd felt the same as if he were watching himself stab someone in a film or computer game. It had felt distant and "didn't bother him." In fact, he added, "It kind of ruined my day."

A prison guard testified that Harling had said he'd committed the murder out of boredom, but Harling denied this. He corrected the account by saying he'd told the guard that if he was released, he would probably kill more people out of boredom — as if that made a difference. A defense psychiatrist who assessed Harling said, "I cannot think of a more dangerous teenager in the country. If released he will probably kill again. He's completely detached from emotion."

Dr. Andrew Payne, a psychiatrist for the prosecution, added another angle: he believed that Harling was hoping for media attention and that his supposed illness was just a ploy to seem like a victim.

In short, there was no doubt that Harling had committed the murder and had long prepared for it. The jury's job was to decide if, due to a mental defect, he did not appreciate in April 2006 that murder was wrong. His constant insults and threats throughout the proceedings, aimed at the judge and prosecutor, no doubt affected their perception of him as a genuine danger.

In July 2007, the jury voted ten to one that Harling was guilty of first-degree murder. Due to the real possibility that he would become violent at sentencing, Judge Brian Barker allowed him to decline to appear. Nevertheless, Barker made a speech. While he accepted that certain autistic traits influenced Harling's emotional detachment, he decided that the murder had nevertheless been premeditated and under Harling's control. Viewing the young man as volatile and dangerous, Barker gave him a life sentence, with a minimum of 20 years.

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