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In 1931, a 12-year-old boy shot and killed the sheriff of Asotin, Washington. The incident stunned the small town and a mob threatened to hang him. Both the crime and Herbert Niccolls's eventual sentence of life imprisonment at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla drew national attention, only to be buried later in local archives.
Journalist Nancy Bartley has conducted extensive research to construct a compelling narrative of the events and characters that make this a unique episode in the history of criminal justice in the United States. Niccolls became a cause for Father Flanagan of Boys Town,who took to the airwaves, imploring listeners to write Governor Hartley on the boy's behalf. The bitter campaign put Hartley in such a negative light that he lost his bid for reelection. Under a new and progressive warden, Niccolls thrived in prison. Inmates like physician Peter Miller and literary agent James Ashe became his tutors, finding that Niccolls had an insatiable appetite for knowledge. During the deadly 1934 prison riot at Walla Walla, several prisoners kept him from harm.
Niccolls was finally released from prison in his early twenties. He went to work at 20th Century Fox in Hollywood, where he kept his secret for the rest of his long life. The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff explores this little-known story of a young boy's fate in the juvenile justice system during the bloodiest years in the nation's penitentiaries.