Just a few weeks ago, Tristen Kurilla started 5th grade at Damascus Elementary School, located in Damascus County, Pennsylvania. Today, instead of joining his classmates in school, however, Kurilla is sitting in an isolated cell in the Wayne County Correctional Facility, a facility which generally houses adult criminal offenders.
On Saturday October 11, police received a call reporting that an elderly woman had died in the home of Kurilla’s grandfather, Anthony Virbitsky. Virbitsky was the caretaker for 90-year-old Helen Novak, the woman reported dead in his home.
Just hours after the coroner transported Novak’s body to the morgue, Kurilla’s mother brought him to the police station, claiming that he confessed to killing the woman. According to the criminal complaint sworn out against him, Martha Virbitsky, his mother, insisted that her ten-year-old son speak to the police alone. She also waived his right to an attorney.
Here’s a screen shot of the criminal complaint, describing the behavior of the boy’s mother.
According to the complaint, ten-year-old Tristen then confessed to killing Novak by holding a cane to her throat for “4 to 5 seconds,” and punching her in the throat. When asked if he meant to kill her, he reportedly said, “No, I was only trying to hurt her.”
Later, the officer who filled out the complaint stated that while he was recording Tristen’s statement, the boy had trouble answering questions and needed to be left alone with his mother.
Here’s a screen shot of the officer’s statement:
Tristen Kurilla was charged with criminal homicide, a crime which requires both understanding of what he did and the intent to kill. Under Pennsylvania law, a person charged with this crime must be tried as an adult, regardless of age.
There are a lot of questions about the behavior of the adults in this situation, although most of the media attention thus far has focused on the behavior of the 10-year-old boy.
The boy’s grandfather stated that Tristen told him that Novak was bleeding from her mouth, shortly after the attack was supposed to have taken place. He then said that he checked on her and there was no blood, but he noticed she was breathing heavily. He told police that he asked her if she wanted to go to the hospital, and that she said no.
Does it make sense that the grandfather claims she was awake and responsive after this attack, but that she didn’t mention it when he went to check on her? Or that she would have refused medical care?
New York Daily News reports that Tristen’s family does not want him moved out of the adult jail where he is being held and they also don’t want him brought home.
Was this ten-year-old capable of understanding his rights at the time these officers spoke with him? Was his mother allowed to wave this child’s right to an attorney or to insist, as she clearly did, that he speak to the police without anyone else present? According to the Citizens Voice, a parent has no authority to waive a child’s right to an attorney.
Did the police look at this from all angles, including the possibility that the mother and grandfather may have a different motive for coercing a confession out of a ten-year-old? Maybe he committed this horrible crime, but then again, maybe he didn’t.
Kurilla’s mother told the police that he “lies a lot,” that he’s been violent in the past and that he has mental health issues. Those statements need to be verified by other sources.
Tristen is currently scheduled to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, which should reveal any underlying mental health conditions. If a mental health condition does exist, then that is all the more reason to believe that he is not capable of understanding the charges against him or of participating in his own defense.
Just being ten years old, in and of itself, should negate the possibility that this child be treated as an adult. A ten-year-old’s brain is not the same as an adult’s. Scientific evidence has emerged within the last decade which clearly shows us even the brains of teenagers and young adults do not function in the same way that adult brains function. There are connections that children are simply not physiologically able to make. To ask a child to think like an adult is no different than asking a person without legs to walk. If Tristen Kurilla did hold a cane to Novak’s throat, and if he did punch her several times, where is the evidence that shows that he understood that doing those things could cause her death? The only evidence in that respect shows the opposite, when he was asked if he meant to kill her, he answered:
“No, I just wanted to hurt her.”
Tristen Kurilla’s attorney, Bernard Brown, is currently working to get him transferred from the adult correctional facility where he’s being kept in isolation, to a juvenile detention center. According to the Citizens Voice, once that hurdle has been overcome, he will then motion to have the boy’s confession ruled as inadmissible.