In an in­fant homi­cide case of young girl, court fight is likely

Texarkana Gazette - - NATION - By Amy Forliti

MIN­NEAPO­LIS—When a 10-year-old Wis­con­sin girl was charged with homi­cide this week in the death of an in­fant, it was a rare case of adult charges be­ing filed against some­one so young.

The girl told in­ves­ti­ga­tors she pan­icked af­ter drop­ping the baby at a home day care and then stomped on his head when he be­gan cry­ing. She sobbed dur­ing a court ap­pear­ance in Chippewa County, where she was led away in hand­cuffs and a re­straint.

A deeper look at the new case and the is­sues raised:

TRIED IN ADULT COURT

The age at which chil­dren get moved to adult court varies by state and can be dis­cre­tionary in some cases.

Wis­con­sin is an out­lier in that state law re­quires homi­cide or at­tempted homi­cide charges to be ini­tially filed in adult court if the sus­pect is at least 10 years old, ac­cord­ing to Marcy Mistrett, chief ex­ec­u­tive at the Cam­paign for Youth Jus­tice.

Wis­con­sin is among 28 states that al­low ju­ve­niles to be au­to­mat­i­cally tried in adult court for cer­tain crimes, in­clud­ing mur­der. For most states, the age at which that is trig­gered is 15 or 16 years old—while some states have de­cided 10 is even too young for a child to be held re­spon­si­ble in the ju­ve­nile jus­tice sys­tem, Mistrett said.

Mov­ing a case to ju­ve­nile court de­pends on es­tab­lish­ing cer­tain fac­tors, such as whether the child would get needed ser­vices in the adult sys­tem, said Eric Nel­son, a de­fense at­tor­ney who prac­tices in Wis­con­sin.

RARE CASES

Homi­cide cases in­volv­ing 10-year-old de­fen­dants are ex­tremely rare. From 2007 through 2016, 44 chil­dren aged 10 or younger were be­lieved to be re­spon­si­ble for homi­cides in the U.S., ac­cord­ing to data com­piled by North­east­ern Univer­sity crim­i­nol­o­gist James Alan Fox. Only seven of those chil­dren were girls.

In 2003, two 12-year-old boys fa­tally beat and stabbed 13-year-old Craig Sorger af­ter they in­vited him to play in Wash­ing­ton state. Evan Savoie and Jake Eakin ul­ti­mately pleaded guilty in adult court and were sen­tenced to 20 years and 14 years in prison, re­spec­tively.

In a case where the vic­tim sur­vived, two 12-year-old Wis­con­sin girls were ac­cused of re­peat­edly stab­bing their class­mate and leav­ing her for dead in 2014, say­ing they were try­ing to ap­pease the fic­tional hor­ror char­ac­ter Slen­der Man. Af­ter ef­forts to move their cases to ju­ve­nile court failed, Mor­gan Geyser and Anissa Weier pleaded guilty in adult court and were com­mit­ted to men­tal health in­sti­tu­tions for terms of 40 and 25 years, re­spec­tively. Geyser is ap­peal­ing.

DE­VEL­OP­ING BRAIN

Lau­rence Stein­berg, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Tem­ple Univer­sity, re­searches the im­pli­ca­tions of brain devel­op­ment and how young peo­ple are treated un­der the law. He said it was ab­surd to charge the 10-year-old Wis­con­sin girl in adult court.

“I’d be very sur­prised if this went any­where be­cause, first of all, she just doesn’t have the in­tel­lec­tual or emo­tional ca­pac­ity to be an adult,” he said. “I doubt that she would even be com­pe­tent to stand trial, and I cer­tainly would hope that her de­fense at­tor­neys would de­mand to do a com­pe­tency eval­u­a­tion.”

At 10, the girl’s ma­tu­rity would be sig­nif­i­cantly less than even the 13- and 14-yearolds whose ma­tu­rity courts are ques­tion­ing more fre­quently, Stein­berg said.

Fox, the North­east­ern crim­i­nol­o­gist, added: “They may dress like adults, act like adults, talk like adults, even kill like adults, but they think like chil­dren—and it’s il­log­i­cal that a 10-year-old should have the same re­spon­si­bil­ity as an adult.”

He said chil­dren of­ten com­mit crimes with­out con­sid­er­ing the con­se­quences to them­selves or their vic­tims.

“That’s why we have a two-part sys­tem— be­cause kids are dif­fer­ent.”

DE­TAILS OF THE WIS­CON­SIN CASE

Au­thor­i­ties say the girl was re­moved from her bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents’ care in Septem­ber and was in foster care at the home where the baby was in­jured. The home also op­er­ated as Am­ber’s Pals and Play­mates Child Care.

Op­er­a­tor Am­ber Sweeney told au­thor­i­ties that at the time of the baby’s in­jury, she was the only adult at the home with two 2-yearolds, two 6-year-olds, the 10-year-old and the baby.

Sweeney said she put the baby down for a nap around 3 p.m., and the three older chil­dren ar­rived by school bus about 40 min­utes later. She went out­side with all of the chil­dren ex­cept the sleep­ing in­fant.

She told in­ves­ti­ga­tors she in­structed the chil­dren to stay out­side be­cause the baby was sleep­ing, but she saw the 10-year-old girl sit­ting in­side the house by a bay win­dow. At about 3:40 p.m., au­thor­i­ties got an emer­gency call, say­ing a baby was bleed­ing from the face.

Sweeney, a li­censed foster par­ent in Chippewa County, has sur­ren­dered her day­care li­cense and vol­un­tar­ily closed her op­er­a­tion amid an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by Wis­con­sin’s Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies. She has been li­censed to pro­vide day care since 2002. A phone con­nected to her name was not ac­cept­ing mes­sages Fri­day.

It’s un­clear why the 10-year-old girl was in foster care. A mes­sage left with her at­tor­ney wasn’t re­turned to The As­so­ci­ated Press. Her bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents, whose names haven’t been re­leased, were with her in court.

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