Idaho teen held in solitary for months after murder charges
The crime was so awful that readers of the local paper in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, complained that the details were too graphic to print.
“Blood everywhere,” one officer noted in a police report, describing the apartment where he’d found blood on the floor, blood on the ceiling and the bloody body of a boy on his dead father’s lap.
In a confession at the police station, 14-year-old Eldon Gale Samuel III told an interrogator that he shot his father, Eldon Samuel Jr., 46, after his father had beaten him and told him to “get out,” according to court records.
Then the teen turned a shotgun on his brother, Jonathan, 13, who was hiding under a bed, and hacked him to death with a knife and a machete, officials said. “Eldon III informed us he ‘hated’ his brother,” one officer said in police reports, which also said that Eldon had tortured animals when he was younger. “Eldon reiterated that he did not care about, or feel bad about, killing his brother,” who reportedly had Down syndrome.
The slayings in March horrified sleepy Coeur d’Alene, population 45,579, where years can pass without a homicide. It’s even rarer to see a suspect so young charged with murder -- which has set up a whole new problem.
Eldon, who was born in Modesto, has been in solitary confinement in an adult jail for more than 70 days, first when he was charged with the murder of his father and brother and most recently after a judge ordered him back to the adult facility. In between, officials say he spent about six trouble-free weeks in a juvenile facility, which is where his attorney wants him returned.
Under state and federal laws, authorities are required to separate juveniles from the adult population for their own safety, which has resulted in Eldon being in solitary confinement at the adult jail.
“He’s being punished before he’s been convicted,” the boy’s public defender, John M. Adams, told The Times on Tuesday. “He’s losing sleep, he’s starting to hallucinate and he’s angry.... Since he’s been in solitary, I have seen his physical and emotional and mental state all deteriorate.”
The teen, now 15, has been charged as an adult with second-degree murder in the death of his father and first-degree murder in the death of his brother. (According to police reports, Eldon’s mother was living in Modesto at the time of the killings; she could not be reached for comment.)
A judge entered a not-guilty plea for the boy after he stood silent at his arraignment Monday.
The practice of solitary confinement, especially for juveniles, has come under criticism, including from U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. Both Eldon’s attorney and the Idaho chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union have filed motions calling his treatment illegal and asking that he be transferred to a juvenile facility.
The ACLU has campaigned against solitary confinement for juveniles, citing evidence that it can be psychologically harmful.
In an amicus brief filed Friday, the ACLU of Idaho said Eldon was being held alone for most of the day in a cinderblock cell at the Kootenai County Jail “under conditions like those we hold terrorists and enemy combatants in” at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The brief said the boy eats alone, has to shout to get the attention of guards and gets only an hour outside for recreation.
“It’s just a relic of a bygone era that people would even consider holding children in solitary confinement,” the group’s legal director, Richard Eppink, said in an interview Tuesday.
Eldon is kept in a 9-by-12-foot medical holding cell near the booking area of the Kootenai County jail because state and federal laws don’t allow juveniles to be in view or earshot of adult inmates.
Because of that, and because of the way the building is structured, the jail must be put on lockdown when Eldon meets with his attorney so that he does not have accidental contact with adult inmates on his way to a meeting room. Jail officials said Eldon was their only juvenile inmate.
“We’re limited where we can house him,” Capt. Andy Deak, the custody division commander for the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office, told The Times, adding that Eldon is under constant supervision. “I can’t put him next door to a bunch of men who are going to be yelling at him all night. The jail’s a dark place sometimes, and inmates yell at each other to instigate them; he’s young.... It’s the safest place in the jail for him, short of building a new wing or something for him. We very rarely get juveniles.”
Eldon was first placed in the adult jail after his arrest in March. His attorney, Adams, said the holding cell is noisy because deputies are always bringing in new arrestees.
“The place runs 24 hours a day. It’s never quiet, the lights never go out,” said Adams, who successfully petitioned a magistrate judge to move the boy to a juvenile facility. There, Eldon had contact with other boys, got education five days a week, and exercised every day as he awaited trial.
But that changed after his case was assigned to District Judge Benjamin Simpson, who was “outraged that this defendant is being housed in the juvenile detention center,” Adams said.
Simpson worried that Eldon might harm the other boys and ordered him back to the adult jail. “I just can’t in good conscience order him to continue to be held in the Juvenile Detention Center,” Simpson said during a hearing this month, according to the Idaho Spokesman-Review.
Simpson did not respond to a request for comment.
Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh told The Times that he had not requested the boy’s transfer to the adult facility, adding that “when he was in the juvenile facility, we felt comfortable that they were taking reasonable steps to make sure other juveniles” were safe.
The ACLU disputed the judge’s decision -- especially given official testimony to Simpson about Eldon’s behavior in custody.
“The watch commander has assured this court that Eldon is always quiet and has never presented a behavior problem,” the group said in its amicus brief last week. “He is always polite and respectful to jail staff. Juvenile Detention Center staff had the same experience with Eldon during the month and a half he spent there.” (Officials at the juvenile detention center did not respond to a message seeking comment.)
Eldon has been back in solitary confinement at the adult jail since July 2. His next hearing, on his attorney’s motion to move him out of the jail again, is scheduled for next week.
ACLU Idaho officials hope the case will highlight other instances in the state where juveniles are kept in solitary confinement.
“Nobody has alerted us to this kind of situation before” in Idaho, said Eppink, the group’s legal director.
They might want to check back with the Kootenai County Jail, where, according to jail officials, Eldon’s case has been unusual but not unique.
“We have had children who have done similar things in our community who have been held here for longer periods of time, if I’m not mistaken,” said Deak, the jail commander. “I know that there’s been at least one. But we don’t have these every day.”
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