Fault Lines
18 August 2017

Judging Crazy: Wisconsin Struggles With Slenderman Stabbing Case

Aug. 12, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, the Wisconsin girls accused of stabbing a classmate last year, are a step closer to being tried as adults.

On Monday, Wisconsin Circuit Judge Michael Bohren denied both of the girls’ petitions calling for the proceedings to continue in the juvenile justice system. In May 2014, at the age of 12, the girls allegedly lured their friend into the woods before stabbing her more than 19 times with a kitchen knife. Geyser and Weier claimed that they wanted to kill Payton Leutner in obedience to Slenderman, a fictional character from the Creepypasta horror stories.

Everyone seems to agree that the girls are, well, pretty much as crazy as you’d expect someone to be if they tried to murder a friend at the behest of a supernatural, faceless, tentacle-limbed, child-abducting dude they’d read about in internet fiction. What the girls’ advocates and the judge disagree on is what to do about all that craziness.

What To Do And Where To Do It?

To understand the court’s decision this week is to understand the path leading to this week’s decision. Recounting the path provides a quick education in juvenile criminal procedure, such as it is.

The Waukesha County District Attorney’s Office charged Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier with attempted first degree intentional homicide. Since that offense triggers the automatic transfer to the adult system, the charging decision was even more significant than it would otherwise be.

The Wisconsin statute provides that a minor above the age of 10 years old who is charged with certain homicide offenses must be routed to adult criminal court, rather than the juvenile justice system. The offense types include first degree intentional homicide, attempted first degree intentional homicide, first degree reckless homicide, and second degree intentional homicide. The procedure of moving a minor to the adult system is often referred to simply as “transfer” or “waiver.” While discretionary waiver might apply for other accused juveniles, for kids accused of one of the above crimes, waiver is automatic.

So, earlier this year, the girls’ attorneys tried to convince the court that mitigating factors in this case supported a charge of attempted second-degree intentional homicide instead. The second-degree offense does not trigger Wisconsin’s automatic transfer procedure.

Defense counsel argued that Geyser and Weier believed that, if they did not kill their classmate, Slenderman would hurt them or their families. Self-defense or defense of others against a malevolent fictional character may be a fact pattern fit for a law school exam on imperfect self-defense, but the evidence showing that the girls truly acted for that reason was a bit shaky.

Weier told detectives at one point, “I was really scared. He could kill my whole family in three seconds.” But she also seemed to suggest that she was following Geyser’s lead in the plan, not really trying to save her family from that three-second fate. Moreover, Geyser apparently told detectives, “I honestly don’t know why we did this.”

Judge Bohren didn’t buy that the girls acted in self-defense, even the imperfect kind. In March, he ruled that the cases could move to trial on the first-degree charges pushed for by the prosecutors. Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier would thus remain in the adult system.

Though the offense itself triggered the automatic transfer, Judge Bohren agreed in March to hear Geyser and Weier’s petitions for “reverse waiver” back to the juvenile system. Everyone involved understood that the outcome of the earlier proceedings would route the cases to either juvenile or adult court, but the legal issue facing the court was about the appropriate charge. Strictly speaking, it was not about the appropriate court. Only once faced with the reverse waiver issue, was Judge Bohren asked to look specifically at whether the girls’ particular circumstances warranted their return to the juvie system.

How Long To Do Whatever It Is That’s Being Done?

As I discussed in an earlier Fault Lines’ post, Morgan Geyser’s mother Angie led a popular campaign calling for the girls to remain in the juvenile system where they would have greater access to mental health treatment. In a Change.org petition, Angie Geyser wrote:

Our beautiful daughter Morgan is twelve years old, and has been diagnosed with childhood-onset schizophrenia. Unfortunately, her diagnosis came too late, and she is being charged as an adult for crime that occurred last May.

Morgan has spent the majority of the past 11 months in a windowless jail, where she has no access to the outdoors and is not allowed physical contact with her family. This is a situation that would be harmful to the development of any child, but especially so for a child with a serious mental illness. She has received no treatment for her brain disease since being diagnosed. This is extremely concerning, because research has shown that early treatment of schizophrenia and psychosis improves long term prognosis. We are worried that if Morgan doesn’t receive treatment soon, we will lose her to her disease [ . . . ] Every day that passes without treatment decreases the likelihood that she will recover and have the opportunity to become a productive member of society. Morgan is just a child, and she deserves that opportunity and a second chance at life.

Ironically, when Judge Bohren denied the petitions to move the girls back to the jurisdiction of the juvenile system, he too spoke of the importance of mental health treatment.

The judge didn’t quibble with the evidence of the girls’ serious mental illness, but he noted that the only way to ensure that they would continue to receive supervised psychiatric treatment after age 18 was to keep them in the adult system. If convicted as adults, they could be sentenced to as much as 65 years of prison, as well as be subject to tightly monitored supervised release terms.

Judge Bohren also reminded observers that Geyser and Weier were accused of a premeditated effort to murder someone. While their victim survived the stabbing, it wasn’t for Geyser or Weier’s apparent lack of trying to do her in. Whatever — or whomever — the cause of what Geyser once described as “stabby, stab, stab,” the public might be safer if they weren’t left unattended. Maybe for a very long while.

. . . To Whom Is It Even Being Done?

What do we do with a person who responds well to psychiatric treatment but, if untreated, would revisit her previous hobby of slicing up friends in the woods? When answering that question, are we thinking of how a severely mentally ill person is when medicated and functional, or a severely mentally ill person is when she is au naturel?

Angie Geyser seems to believe that, if we can identify a biological cause for a defendant’s violent behavior, that means that she is a victim of biology. Judge Bohren would consider that same person, for the same reason, a perpetual threat to society. While age is important, the central disagreement in the Slenderman stabbing case is about culpability more generally.

Wisconsin law allows the defense to challenge waiver decisions by interlocutory appeals. So, Geyser and Weier may yet end up in the juvenile system.

Main image via WISN 12.

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  • Wrongway
    13 August 2015 at 3:52 am - Reply

    “at the age of 12..”
    why even have Juvie courts then ?? at that age, they’re kids.. kids do dumb things.. yeah this is pretty bad, really bad in fact, but there’s one thing that will not go away.. the age of these 2 when the act was committed..
    ‘automatic’ waivers (in my personal opinion) should be held as a lack of due process..

    “who waived their rights?
    why the state did..
    and who gave the authority to the state to waive an individuals rights?
    umm… the state did..”

    Are these 2 girls guilty ?
    Yes I believe they are.. & yes I believe they should be punished.. but fairly..

    just because a bunch of old farts got together & passed legislative act doesn’t do away with the fact that these 2 kids were ‘kids’ when this crime, (no matter how bad it was) happened..
    to be facing 65yrs for a crime committed at the age of 12 is kind of a crime in itself..

    please keep us updated on this..