The two youngest boys charged in the rape last month of an 8-year-old Liberian girl were ordered Wednesday to remain in juvenile detention with restricted visitors, as Liberia's deputy ambassador to the U.S. arrived in town hoping to speak to them.
At separate hearings at which one of the young defendants openly wept, judges ordered that no one be allowed to interview the 9- and 10-year-old boys without the permission of their lawyers, court-appointed advocates and Child Protective Services.
Both lawyers indicated they would advise the boys not to speak to the deputy ambassador, Edwin Sele.
Sele arrived in Phoenix on Wednesday afternoon for a weeklong fact-finding mission and to help dispel notions that rape is condoned in the West African country. He told The Associated Press on Monday that he hoped to interview the victim, the four boys accused of raping her and their families.
The rape case drew international attention last month after police reported the alleged victim's parents said they were ashamed of the girl and didn't want her back — a contention later disputed by the family's pastor. The girl remains in custody of Child Protective Services.
During the alleged July 16 attack, police say the 9- and 10-year-old boys and two other teenagers lured the girl to an empty storage shed with the promise of chewing gum, restrained her and took turns raping her. The 14-year-old has been charged as an adult, and prosecutors are seeking to charge the 13-year-old as an adult, as well.
The 10-year-old boy, whose ankles and wrists were shackled during Wednesday's hearing, slouched in his oversized chair and was expressionless until Judge Aimee Anderson spoke directly to him.
"I will tell you I'm very proud of you for being back there and working so hard," she said as she held up a certificate that his juvenile facility had given him for good behavior. "I know it's not easy and pretty hard to make friends in there ... Hang in there, OK?"
As she spoke, tears poured down his face and his sniffles could be heard over a courtroom microphone.
Anderson granted prosecutors' request to change two of the boy's charges from sexual assault to sexual conduct. He also is charged with kidnapping.
Minutes later at a separate hearing, the 9-year-old charged in the case sat quietly and looked around curiously from time to time. Judge Dawn Bergin ordered that his sexual assault charge be changed to sexual conduct, also at prosecutors' request.
The 9- and 10-year-old boys' uncle, whom The Associated Press is not identifying because he shares a last name with one of the boys, told the AP outside court that he was skeptical about whether his nephews had committed rape. "It's hard to believe a 9-year-old could commit rape," he said.
He said the boys are cousins, came to the U.S. about six years ago and had been living in Phoenix with their grandmother. He said neither remember their life in Liberia, speak very limited English and don't understand what's going on in court.
During the hearings, a court-appointed advocate for the boys said the 10-year-old's parents still live in Africa, and that the 9-year-old's mother is dead and his father is in Africa.
Neither have legal guardians, she said, which is why she said she will file dependency petitions on each of their behalf in hopes of getting them out of juvenile detention and placing them with an uncle or in Child Protective Services.