MINNEAPOLIS – When a 10-year-old Wisconsin girl was charged with homicide this week in the death of an infant, it was a rare — but not unprecedented — case of adult charges being filed against someone so young.
The girl told investigators she panicked after dropping the baby at a home day care and then stomped on his head when he began crying. She sobbed during a court appearance in Chippewa County, where she was led away in handcuffs and a restraint.
A deeper look at the new case and the issues raised:
TRIED IN ADULT COURT
The age at which children get moved to adult court varies by state and can be discretionary in some cases.
Wisconsin is an outlier in that state law requires homicide or attempted homicide charges to be initially filed in adult court if the suspect is at least 10 years old, according to Marcy Mistrett, chief executive at the Campaign for Youth Justice.
Wisconsin is among 28 states that allow juveniles to be automatically tried in adult court for certain crimes, including murder. For most states, the age at which that is triggered is 15 or 16 years old — while some states have decided 10 is even too young for a child to be held responsible in the juvenile justice system, Mistrett said.
Moving a case to juvenile court depends on establishing certain factors, such as whether the child would get needed services in the adult system, said Eric Nelson, a defense attorney who practices in Wisconsin.
For example, prosecutors in an attempted murder case involving a 12-year-old schizophrenic girl who stabbed a classmate said she belonged in adult court, where she could be monitored for years for a disease that isn't curable. Defense attorneys unsuccessfully argued against those claims.
Homicide cases involving 10-year-old defendants are extremely rare. From 2007 through 2016, 44 children aged 10 or younger were believed to be responsible for homicides in the U.S., according to data compiled by Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox. Only seven of those children were girls.
In 2003, two 12-year-old boys fatally beat and stabbed 13-year-old Craig Sorger after they invited him to play in Washington state. Evan Savoie and Jake Eakin ultimately pleaded guilty in adult court and were sentenced to 20 years and 14 years in prison, respectively.
In a case where the victim survived, two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls were accused of repeatedly stabbing their classmate and leaving her for dead in 2014, saying they were trying to appease the fictional horror character Slender Man. After efforts to move their cases to juvenile court failed, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier pleaded guilty in adult court and were committed to mental health institutions for terms of 40 and 25 years, respectively. Geyser is appealing.
THE DEVELOPING BRAIN
Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, researches the implications of brain development and how young people are treated under the law. He said it was absurd to charge the 10-year-old Wisconsin girl in adult court.
"I'd be very surprised if this went anywhere because, first of all, she just doesn't have the intellectual or emotional capacity to be an adult," he said. "I doubt that she would even be competent to stand trial, and I certainly would hope that her defense attorneys would demand to do a competency evaluation."
At 10, the girl's maturity would be significantly less than even the 13- and 14-year-olds whose maturity courts are questioning more frequently, Steinberg said.
Fox, the Northeastern criminologist, added: "They may dress like adults, act like adults, talk like adults, even kill like adults, but they think like children — and it's illogical that a 10-year-old should have the same responsibility as an adult."
He said children often commit crimes without considering the consequences to themselves or their victims.
"That's why we have a two-part system — because kids are different."
DETAILS OF THE WISCONSIN CASE
Authorities say the girl was removed from her biological parents' care in September and was in foster care at the home where the baby was injured. The home also operated as Amber's Pals and Playmates Child Care.
Operator Amber Sweeney told authorities that at the time of the baby's injury, she was the only adult at the home with two 2-year-olds, two 6-year-olds, the 10-year-old and the baby.
Sweeney said she put the baby down for a nap around 3 p.m., and the three older children arrived by school bus about 40 minutes later. She went outside with all of the children except the sleeping infant.
She told investigators she instructed the children to stay outside because the baby was sleeping, but she saw the 10-year-old girl sitting inside the house by a bay window. At about 3:40 p.m., authorities got an emergency call, saying a baby was bleeding from the face.
Sweeney, a licensed foster parent in Chippewa County, has surrendered her day-care license and voluntarily closed her operation amid an investigation by Wisconsin's Department of Children and Families. She has been licensed to provide day care since 2002. A phone connected to her name was not accepting messages Friday.
It's unclear why the 10-year-old girl was in foster care. A message left with her attorney wasn't returned to The Associated Press. Her biological parents, whose names haven't been released, were with her in court.
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