Attorneys for a 12-year-old California boy charged with killing his sister said Wednesday they wonder if he is mature enough to handle a legal prosecution.
They spoke following a closed juvenile court proceeding, at which the boy was told he had been charged with second-degree murder with a special allegation for use of a dangerous weapon in the stabbing death of his 8-year-old sister.
We have no reason to have any doubts about our client's innocence,
- Steve Plesser
Second-degree indicates the killing was not premeditated.
His sister, Leila Fowler, was killed in the family's Sierra Nevada foothill home last month while the two children were home alone, authorities said.
"Can a 12-year-old be psychologically, intellectually and emotionally mature enough to aid attorneys in defending himself against the most serious of charges?" asked attorney Steve Plesser, who has been hired by the family to defend the boy.
The boy did not enter a plea at the hearing.
His name is withheld because he is a juvenile. Wednesday's hearing was not open to the public.
Plesser said neither he nor his law partner Mark Reichel had seen the evidence that led the Calaveras County district attorney to charge the boy. Still, they believe he is not guilty of the crime that terrified the rural community of Valley Springs and baffled investigators and the FBI for two weeks.
"We have no reason to have any doubts about our client's innocence," Plesser said.
Investigators went door-to-door in the area and searched barns, stables, outbuildings and ponds for evidence. They also collected DNA at the scene and from family members.
The attorneys declined to discuss specific details of the case during brief statements they made after the hearing, but they did talk in general about the legal issues they are facing.
"We have questions," Plesser said. "Why do the police think the minor did this? Why would a 12-year-old commit an offense like this? And how did it not lead to an immediate arrest and it took 2,000 hours of resources by the sheriff's office and the FBI? We're confident we'll get the answers when we examine and test the evidence."
Ken Rosenfeld, a Sacramento legal analyst and attorney, said that if the boy is convicted, he cannot be held past his 25th birthday under California statutes.
Most young people convicted of similar crimes are paroled by age 19 or 20, said Rosenfeld, who is not associated with the case.
"The juvenile court system is designed for rehabilitation," Rosenfeld said. "If his sentence follows precedent and he does well in the system and doesn't get himself in trouble, he'll be out when he's 19 or 20."
The boy was arrested Saturday after a two-week manhunt for a mystery intruder the boy had said he saw in the home before he found his sister bleeding.
On Tuesday, Reichel told the Associated Press the youngster might have lied about seeing a long-haired man fleeing the scene, but that doesn't make the boy the killer.
He said his client might have made up a "macho" story about scaring away the intruder because he was scared.
The children's father and his fiancee were at a Little League game at the time of the stabbing. The boy called them to report that he had seen an intruder in the home, and the couple called 911 and sped home.
After the hearing, which was attended by the boy's father Mark Fowler, his fiancee Krystal Walters, and the boy's biological mother Priscilla Rodriguez, attorney Reichel said the family wants to be left alone.
"As they travel down this incredibly difficult path, they are obviously extremely concerned about their son, who they also dearly love," he said. "I'm sure every family in America can understand they are going through extremely difficult times. This is a good family."