SALT LAKE CITY — The 15-year-old sat next to his attorney, mostly staring blankly and occasionally nodding his head when the judge asked if he understood.
But defense attorneys William Russell and Patrick Corum don't believe the teenager charged with murdering 12-year-old Kailey Vijil really comprehended what was going on during his court appearance Wednesday.
"I don't believe there is any real understanding. I believe he's learned just to nod along," Corum, with the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association, told 3rd District Juvenile Court Judge Jim Michie. "I don't believe he really understands what's going on here today other than he's accused of doing something."
The West Valley teen was charged in juvenile court Tuesday with aggravated murder, a first-degree felony, in the girl's death. The Deseret News has chosen not to name him at this time.
The teen, who is short and has a very boyish-looking face, wore a green sweatshirt and was shackled as he sat in the courtroom. Michie slowly explained to the boy why they were there, what he was charged with and what his rights are.
"It's a very serious charge," Michie said. "It is criminal homicide, aggravated murder."
Michie explained that the aggravating circumstance in this case is that the victim, Kailey, was under 14 years of age.
The judge then explained to the boy that prosecutors have also requested that he be certified to stand trial as an adult. If found guilty in adult court, the sentence would be much more serious.
Michie said no decisions would be made Wednesday. And in fact he said it would be some time before any final decisions are made.
"You do have a right to a trial, but it's not going to be right away," he said. "We have to decide a lot of things and its going to take some time to gather some information."
Michie also reminded the teenager that he is innocent until proven guilty.
The judge took several pauses while explaining all of this information to the boy, asking him if he understood. The 15-year-old, without saying a word, would slightly nod his head, looking a bit nervous but mostly showing no expression.
Just as the hearing was about to conclude, Russell asked the judge for a five-minute recess so he could talk privately with his client.
"I'm not sure my client really knows what's going on," he said.
After taking the boy to a holding cell to talk, Russell and Corum concurred that he did not understand what was happening at Wednesday's hearing.
After the hearing was over, the two attorneys declined to say whether the boy was simply confused about the hearing or if his failure to understand what was happening goes deeper than that.
A scheduling conference was set for Aug. 27. Both the prosecution and the defense anticipate they will need several weeks and possibly months to prepare for a preliminary hearing.
Michie acknowledged that the juvenile justice system faces "difficult challenges" in cases of children harming children, and those challenges became "extreme" when the case involves murder.
"I will take my time and I will be fair," the judge told the boy.
The teen's mother and several friends and family members attended Wednesday's hearing. Those friends sheltered the mother from reporters as they led her to the parking garage elevator. They all left the courthouse without comment.
The teen is accused of luring Kailey out of her house about midnight on Friday morning by going to her door and asking her to help him find his missing cat. Her body was found about three hours later in a nearby horse pasture. A shirt was wrapped around her neck, according to charging documents. A medical examiner determined that Kailey was killed by "ligature strangulation."
West Valley police believe the boy had attempted to entice several other young girls out of their homes before Kailey. One woman told the Deseret News she had been talking to neighbors and had identified at least seven other young girls he tried to get outside.
Gabrielle Richards went to Hunter Junior High School with the boy. She described him as someone who got into a lot of trouble at school and someone whom others bullied and picked fights with. She said he was "constantly in the (principal's) office" and didn't do a lot of his schoolwork. But he wasn't the type who would act out with violence, she said.
The 15-year-old had previously been referred to juvenile court three times for misdemeanors and infractions in the past 10 months, according to court records. He was arrested for investigation of possession of drug paraphernalia in October of 2014, theft in February and burglary nine days after his theft arrest, according to court records.
He was first placed in Salt Lake Juvenile Detention in February and spent 32 days there, according to court records. The boy was placed in an "observation and assessment facility" on May 26. He spent 44 days there before he was released and placed on probation July 9, about a week before Kailey was killed.
Contributing: Sandra Yi
Email: [email protected], Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam