In 1931 in the small southeast Washington town of Asotin, a 12 year old boy named Herbert Nicholls Jr. shot and killed the town sheriff.
Nicholls was starving and abused, and had run away from home and broken into the local store to steal some food. The sheriff came in to find him, and Nicholls fired the gun with the intent to scare him away. Unfortunately, the bullet hit the sheriff in the head, killing him instantly.
Nancy Bartley wrote the biography on Nicholls, titled The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff: The Redemption of Herbert Nicholls Jr. In this conversation, she tells us that Nicholls was sentenced to life in an adult prison at 12 years old.
"Herbert could not go in to the juvenile justice system because he was a violent offender, and they had rules that you can't put murderers in to the juvenile system," says Bartley.
But as Bartley tells us, the prison in Walla Walla ended up being a sort of environment that Herbert Nicholls was never exposed to growing up. A sympathetic warden made sure that he was safe. He was able to enroll in school, and was tutored by two well-educated inmates. And when a new state governor was elected, the governor pardoned him at the age of 21. As a result of the education and care that Nicholls got while in prison, he was able to go on to live a successful, crime free life after being released, something that probably wouldn't have happened had he remained in the abusive environment that he was previously growing up in.
But it was a bad business deal and ensuing legal troubles when Nicholls was in his 60s that led him to take drastic action to, as Bartley tells, ensure he'd never end up behind bars again.