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A 9-year-old Illinois boy accused of setting fire to his family’s trailer while they slept could barely understand the charges brought against him at his first hearing Monday.
Prosecutors charged the boy, who hasn’t been named because of his age, with five counts of first-degree murder earlier this month for the deadly fire, which took place in April. But at his hearing, the boy struggled to make sense of what those words meant, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“What don’t you understand?” Judge Charles Feeny asked the boy after reading his charges during his Monday arraignment at the Woodford County juvenile court.
“What I did,” the boy told the judge.
The judge then had to explain each charge in language a 9-year-old could understand. At one point, the boy’s attorney said the boy didn’t understand what “alleged” meant.
“It means someone accuses you,” the judge explained. “If I accuse you of wearing a purple shirt … I allege you’re wearing a purple shirt. Is that true?”
Shortly afterward, the boy’s attorney asked the judge to explain what “arson” means.
The fire took the lives of the boy’s great-grandmother, his 2-year-old sister, baby sister, 2-year-old cousin, and his mother’s boyfriend. Only the boy and his mother, 27-year-old Katie Alwood, made it out alive.
“He does have a good heart,” Alwood told the Chicago Tribune earlier this month after her son was charged. She added that he suffers from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. “He helped feed his brother and sister, helped teach them how to walk. Yes, he should be punished, but he needs mental help, that’s what he needs.”
Alwood, who lost custody of her son after the fire, also said he would bring food to a memorial his family set up for the people who died in a fire because he thought his siblings would come back to eat it.
The boy is too young to be sent to a juvenile detention center if he’s found guilty, but he does face probation. If he violates the terms of his probation, though, he can be sentenced to county detention once he’s 10 years old and sent to a state juvenile prison when he turns 13, according to the Tribune.
“It was a heavy decision,” Woodford County State’s Attorney Gregory Minger told the Associated Press. “It’s a tragedy, but at the end of the day, it’s charging a very young person with one of the most serious crimes we have. But I just think it needs to be done at this point, for finality.”
The boy left the courthouse in tears, CBS News reported.
Cover image: This photo taken April 7, 2019, shows a fence and caution tape surrounding a trailer home that was destroyed by fire in the Timberline Mobile Home Park northeast of Goodfield. A prosecutor says a central Illinois 9-year-old will be charged with five counts of first-degree murder in connection with a mobile home fire that killed five people. (Matt Dayhoff/Journal Star via AP)