The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff
The Redemption of Herbert Niccolls Jr.

I first heard of Herbert Niccolls Jr. when I was researching capital punishment and youth. When I saw Herbert’s baby face in the traditional prison mug shot it seemed impossible. Could such a cherubic little boy have shot and killed a beloved sheriff of Asotin County? Could the boy have been sentenced to life at the Washington State Penitentiary? Were things so vastly different in 1931 than they are today?

Those are the questions I explored when I decided to write a book about the state’s youngest murderer. My own son was 12 at the time and still played with toy cars and collected baseball cards. Could any 12-year-old truly be considered beyond redemption?

The Depression Era was one of the bloodiest times in the nation’s penitentiaries. The pendulum had swung from the Progressive Erawhich brought the juvenile courts, child-labor laws and other educational reforms, to get-tough on crime measures of the 1930s.

It was easy to see parallels between that decade and the 1990s when a statistical uptick in juvenile crime led to a national surge in juvenile sentencing laws.