MADISON, Wis. — A pivotal decision is due this week in the case of two 13-year-old Wisconsin girls accused of stabbing a classmate to please online horror character Slender Man — keep them in adult court or move them into the juvenile system.
The stakes are enormous: Each girl faces a charge of attempted first-degree homicide in adult court and could spend up to 65 years in the state prison system if convicted. Should Waukesha County Circuit Judge Bohren move them into the juvenile system, they could be held for only five years and all records of the proceedings would be sealed, giving them a chance to restart their lives.
Bohren, due to rule Monday, faces thorny questions about how young is too young to face adult consequences for crimes. Defense attorneys for both girls argue their clients are mentally ill — one attorney says his client is a schizophrenic who still believes fictional characters such as Slender Man and Harry Potter truly exist — and will receive better treatment in the juvenile system. Prosecutors say transferring them out of adult court would depreciate the seriousness of the crime.
"It's obviously a very tough decision for him," said former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, who attended law school with Bohren. "They're very young. They clearly have some serious mental health issues. That pushes you toward putting them in juvenile court.
"But the crime is so severe."
Prosecutors allege the girls, who are both from Waukesha, a Milwaukee suburb, had plotted for months to kill classmate Payton Leutner in hopes of pleasing Slender Man. They planned to live with the horror character as his servants after the slaying, according to investigators.
They lured Leutner into some woods at a park in May 2014 and stabbed her 19 times before fleeing, according to court documents. A passing bicyclist found Leutner, who survived. Police captured the two girls later that day as they were walking to the Nicolet National Forest, 300 miles away, where they believed Slender Man lived in a mansion.
All three girls were 12 years old at the time. Anyone 10 or older charged with first-degree attempted homicide is automatically considered an adult under Wisconsin law. The Associated Press isn't naming either of the girls charged in case they end up in juvenile court, where proceedings are secret.
Attorneys for one girl maintain she is an emerging schizophrenic who even now still carries on conversations with Harry Potter characters. If she goes to an adult prison, they say, she won't get the therapy she needs and her symptoms will worsen. The juvenile system, in contrast, focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment.
"(The girl) is not the hardened, irascible offender who ... needs to be taught a lesson through adult court placement," her attorney, Anthony Cotton, wrote in court filings.
Prosecutors Kevin Osborne and Ted Szczupakiewicz countered in their own filing that she would get a longer span of treatment in prison than the juvenile system, and keeping her case in adult court sends a message to the "defendant and other juveniles: that serious actions have serious, adult consequences."
The other girl's attorneys have asked Bohren, on top of the juvenile system request, to declare that the law forcing 10-year-olds into adult court is unconstitutional. They insist it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment against children who can't control themselves because their brains aren't fully developed.
"Since severe adult penalties do not achieve their stated goals of rehabilitation ... when applied to juveniles, they serve only to punish excessively," one of the girl's attorneys, Maura McMahon, wrote in court documents.
Prosecutors have argued that Bohren can't decide whether the punishment is excessive because the girl hasn't been sentenced. Legislators had a rational basis to pass the law as an attempt to curb juvenile crime and protect the public, they added.