By Terri L. Wilkin
Program Director for Emergency & Disaster Management, Fire Science, & EOD and Associate Professor, Legal Studies, AMU
On May 31, 2014, two Wisconsin 12-year-olds lured their friend and classmate, 12-year-old Payton Leutner, into the woods after a sleepover. Anissa Weier held Leutner down and urged Morgan Geyser to keep using her knife. Geyser stabbed Leutner 19 times.
Weier and Geyser left Leutner for dead. However, Leutner crawled out of the secluded woods and got help from a passing cyclist.
After the stabbing, Weier and Geyser roamed the woods in search of Slender Man, a horrific fictional character they believed was real. They wanted to meet him and move into a mansion he supposedly owned. When they were arrested, the two girls claimed that they committed their attack to become proxies of Slender Man and to please him.
Slender Man is a video game based on an urban legend. The legend has continued to grow with thousands of individuals playing video games, drawing Slender Man and watching the movie. Also, there are scores of YouTube videos and other videos touting Slender Man, offering information on summoning and searching for the real Slender Man.
Legal Battle over Charging Weier and Geyser as Adults
The two girls had been planning the attack since February 2014. After their arrest, Weier and Geyser were charged with first-degree attempted homicide as adults. They faced up to 60 years in prison if they were convicted.
Their lawyers tried to move the case to juvenile court. However, they had no luck because charges of attempted first-degree murder automatically transfer to adult court. The girls’ attorneys argued that Weier and Geyser should be charged with second-degree attempted murder so that the case would be heard in juvenile court.
The Circuit Court denied the request and Weier and Geyser, charged with first-degree attempted murder, were tried in adult court. The Circuit Court decision was upheld by the 2nd District Appeals court. The appeals court said “if the girls were found guilty in the juvenile system, they would be released at age 18 with no supervision or mental health treatment.”
Both cases continued in adult court. If the girls were shown to be suffering from a mental illness, they would be committed indefinitely to a mental hospital. If a dispute between the defense and state arose over their mental states, a hearing would be held and a jury would make the decision.
Weier pled guilty to attempted second-degree homicide in August 2017, claiming that she was not responsible for her actions since she was mentally ill. A jury agreed with her in September and she was sentenced to 25 years in a mental hospital in December.
Geyser pled guilty in October 2017 to attempted first-degree homicide, using a plea bargain with the state to avoid prison. In February 2018, Geyser was committed to a mental facility for 40 years, the most severe sentence she could have received.
Legal Systems Vary in Determining When a Juvenile Can Be Tried as an Adult
However, was automatically transferring these two girls to adult court the right decision? Compare this case to the homicide case in Florida. In 1999, two juveniles, ages 12 and 13, were charged with first-degree murder. Each juvenile received a sentence of 18 years in jail and were ultimately paroled in 2015.
States have different minimum ages and crimes that determine when a juvenile is automatically transferred to adult court. Because Weier and Geyser’s crime happened in Wisconsin, state law mandated that anyone over 10 years old who is charged with homicide is automatically considered an adult.
Four states set this age threshold at 13 years old. The age of 14 is the most common age limit in other states.
Why does one state set the age at 14 and another at the age of 12 for the transfer of a juvenile case to adult court? If Weier and Geyser had committed this crime in a state with the 13- or 14-year-old age limit, their case would not have been automatically transferred to adult court.
Is this fair? Should there be more consistency and justification for what age is appropriate to be charged automatically as an adult and for what crimes? The debate will continue.
About the Author
Terri L. Wilkin graduated from the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law in May 2007. She is admitted to practice law in the State of Maryland and the District of Columbia and has been admitted in the Federal United States District Court for the District of Maryland.
Prior to law school, Terri obtained a Master of Science dual degree from the Johns Hopkins University in Leadership and Finance/Accounting. Her 26-year career with the Maryland State Police includes assignments in patrol, criminal and drug investigations, white-collar crime, intelligence work, training, the Deputy Director of the Planning and Research Division, and as the Department Prosecutor. She is also a Florida Licensed Private Investigator and a managing partner in an investigative consulting firm.