PHOENIX – Sexual assault charges against a 9-year-old Liberian boy accused in the gang-rape of an 8-year-old girl were dismissed on Wednesday by a juvenile court judge in Phoenix.
The ruling issued by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Dawn Bergin came after she spent weeks considering if the boy could be made to understand the charges against him. In the seven-page decision, she ruled that the boy could not and is incompetent to stand trial. The charges, sexual assault and sexual contact with a minor, can't be refiled.
Bergin noted in her ruling that because the offense was "serious" the boy is considered a dependent child under Arizona law and programs are available to rehabilitate him and protect the public. He was held in juvenile detention for a month after his arrest and then placed in a Child Protective Services' foster home, where he remains.
His name is being withheld because of his age.
The boy was one of four facing charges in the rape. They lured the girl to a storage shed at a west Phoenix apartment complex on July 16 with the promise of gum and took turns raping her, police said.
All the children involved are refugees from the West African nation of Liberia.
A 15-year-old who was 14 when the alleged crime happened is charged as an adult in the case. A 13-year-old is undergoing a court-ordered process intended to make him competent to stand trial. Another 9-year-old has been ruled incompetent but is undergoing classes to teach him about the court system and become competent to stand trial.
The case sparked an international outcry after police reported the girl's father said she brought shame on the family and he didn't want her back — comments a family pastor later said were misunderstood because of a language barrier.
State child welfare officials have custody of the girl. The girl's 59-year-old father and 47-year-old mother each face eight child abuse counts for a series of abuse and neglect incidents dating back to 2005. Those charges were filed last month.
Two mental health professionals testified during hearings in September and November that the boy whose case was dismissed on Wednesday was incompetent and couldn't be made competent with the eight months required under Arizona law. Competency means he can consult with a lawyer, understand the lawyer's advice and the legal proceedings.
Prosecutors argued at the hearings that the boy had made substantial progress since being placed in foster care and could likely be restored to competency.
But the judge said a chance of being made competent wasn't sufficient. She also included detail of her observations of the boy during the four days of hearing.
"He seemed quite oblivious to the proceedings," Bergin wrote. "He would mostly draw, play with toys, look around the courtroom and put his chin on the table. He rarely, if ever, looked at a witness or seemed to be listening to or comprehending what a witness said."
Mike Scerbo, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, said prosecutors thought there was reason to believe the boy was competent to help with his defense. "The court has ruled otherwise. We respect that ruling," he said.
A call seeking comment from the boy's attorney wasn't immediately returned.