Is adult court right place for 12-year-old suspects in 'Slender Man' stabbing?

A Wisconsin prosecutor says evidence of premeditation warrants charging two girls, 12, as adults in a horrific stabbing case. Others say the girls' fantastical motive, involving a fictional Slender Man, indicates otherwise. Here's the trend in prosecuting juveniles as adults.

Prosecutors say Saturday's multiple stabbing of a young girl outside Milwaukee was so calculated that attempted homicide charges are warranted against the two 12-year-old suspects – a charge that guarantees the girls will be tried as adults. Already, however, that decision is under fire by those who say it is “unprecedented” to try such young defendants as adults, especially given their fantastical motive as relayed by police.

The alleged attackers told police they intended to kill their friend when they stabbed her 19 times on Saturday, leaving her in the woods for dead. Discovered by a bicyclist, the victim is now in fair condition. According to the criminal complaint, both girls said they were driven to kill by the mythological character Slender Man, a staple of user-generated online fiction. Their plan was to join Slender Man in his home, which they insisted was located in a state park in northern Wisconsin. 

Some juvenile justice experts say such a motive points to a confused mental state or stunted emotional development – reasons often cited for not trying minors as adults. But the intentional homicide charges mean that, under Wisconsin law, the case will automatically go to adult court because both girls are over the age of 10.

In the past decade, the US Supreme Court has put limits on sentences for juveniles. In 2005, it forbade the death penalty for youths who committed their crimes before they were 18, and in 2010 it banned sentences of life without parole for those under 18 convicted of crimes short of murder. In 2012, the high court went further, saying states cannot mandate a life sentence without the possibility of parole for juvenile murderers, but must take into account their individual life circumstances.

Whether the girls are tried as juveniles or adults has great bearing on their futures. If convicted in juvenile court, they could be released at age 25. If tried and convicted in adult court, each would face as many as 65 years in prison.

Arguing in favor of keeping most cases of juveniles in juvenile court, law professor Richard Kling at Chicago Kent College of Law says that practice is in keeping with all other facets of society regulating individual behavior.

“We realize kids under 16 are not allowed to smoke, legally they are not allowed to have consensual sex, they can’t join the Army, they can’t vote – all because, as a society, we have concluded their brains are not sophisticated to handle those functions,” says Mr. Kling. “But when kids do bad things, we decide all the sudden we are going to treat kids as adults.”

The premeditated nature of the crime, as reported by police, is what led Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel to charge both girls as adults in Waukesha County Circuit Court. Mr. Schimel says the facts of the case show that the homicide was calculated.

“It’s troubling when a person lashes out in anger. It’s more troubling when they lash out in cold blood. Isn't that the worst kind of killer, the cold-blooded killer?” he told reporters Monday.

Kling disagrees, saying premeditation is not a condition exclusive to adult behavior. “Kids can premeditate. Kids can consciously think about how to sneak downstairs to sneak candy. That doesn’t mean they are not children,” he says.

The American criminal justice system traditionally has treated juvenile offenders differently than adults, on grounds that they may not fully grasp the ramifications of their actions or have control over their impulses, and puts more faith in the possibility of rehabilitation.

Data up to 2007, the last year for which figures are available, show a general drop in the numbers of juvenile suspects tried as adults. Some 8,500 juvenile cases (or 1 percent of the total) were petitioned to adult court in 2007, down from 13,100 in 1994, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.

Some of those cases may represent lost opportunities to turn around young lives, suggests Nadine Connell, assistant professor of criminology at University of Texas at Dallas. “Data suggest that youths who are charged and tried in adult court do not receive the same level of mental health and educational services as youths charged in juvenile court, which can have serious ramifications for their future behavior, both in and out of the correctional system,” she says.

States vary regarding the eligible age of transfer to adult court. Wisconsin is one of 10 states to set the age at 16 for most offenses, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislators. Thirty-eight set the age at 17. Two states, North Carolina and New York, set the age at 15.

But Wisconsin has a direct waiver law, which states that adult courts automatically have jurisdiction over any homicide case involving juvenile offenders over the age of 10, says Professor Connell. “There is no discretionary decisionmaking on the part of the judge or the prosecutor,” she says.

Anthony Cotton, an attorney for one of the young suspects, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel he is requesting a mental evaluation of his client in the event her competency is an issue. He also said he plans to ask the court to move the case to juvenile court. “I believe she has those needs,” Mr. Cotton said of his client.

If convicted, even in adult court, the girls would serve their sentences in juvenile facilities until they turn 18, at which time they would be transferred to an adult prison. Each is currently being held on $500,000 bond at a juvenile facility in West Bend, Wis.

Their next court appearance is set for June 11.

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