The tale of the Slender Man stabbings is a surreal one. For those of you not in the know, last May, in a small town in Wisconsin, two 12-year-old girls were accused of stabbing a fellow 12-year-old classmate 19 times. As the story goes, the two girls did so to protect their families from the evils of Slender Man. They also apparently believed that stabbing their friend would enable them to become servants of Slender Man, live in his mansion, and allow them to help prove his existence to non-believers.
In case you were wondering, Slender Man is a fictional Internet character. He does not exist. Anywhere. Except online. And in the suspects’ 12-year-old minds.
The victim survived the attack.
This story is perverse and tragic, to be sure. Yet, as bizarre as the stabbings were, I’m now hung up on another twist in the case.
Just last week, the judge ruled that the two girls — who were 12 at the time of the the attacks — can be tried as adults in adult court for first-degree attempted intentional homicide. They now each face a maximum punishment of 60 years in prison.
Twelve-year-old girls are not adults. They are children. But, somehow, with a stroke of a pen, two pre-pubescent tweens — who can’t vote, drive, or serve in the military — have been transformed into adults for purposes of criminal punishment.
But those adults don’t exist. Anywhere. Except on paper in a courtroom.
Think about that in the context of this case. A judge engages in a legal fiction — that 12 year-old children are adults — to punish children who are accused of committing a crime that was prompted by fiction.
Now does that make sense to you?
Children can certainly engage in shocking, dangerous, and sometime lethal, conduct. I am neither denying nor justifying that behavior. Nor am I condoning in any way what happened here.
But dangerous conduct does not transform children into fully-formed, rational adults.
It’s not just a question of numerical age. Children are biologically and psychologically different than adults. Neuroscience says so. It’s scientific fact that children’s brains are not fully formed, and that their decision-making is impulsive, immature and often irrational. More fundamentally, children still present the possibility of change, reform and redemption.
The juvenile justice system, for all its flaws, recognizes that reality. It is designed to meet the psychological, behavioral, and emotional needs of children, all the while holding them accountable for their deviant actions.
Under Wisconsin law, another serious charge available to the prosecution in the Slender Man case is second-degree attempted intentional homicide, which would enable the case to be heard in juvenile court. If the girls’ were found guilty of that offense, they could be held in juvenile detention until they were 25-years-old. A sentence of that magnitude could result in a 13 year stint in the juvenile system, one year longer than the length of time that either girl has walked this earth.
The girls’ lawyers vowed to appeal in an effort to have the case moved back to juvenile court.