Inside the prosecution debate: When kids kill

Two young girls charged in a murder in Morrison are awaiting trial and a decision by a judge that will impact the rest of their lives.

15-year olds Anna Schroeder and Rachel Helm are sitting in a juvenile detention center in Galesburg, wondering if they will be charged as adults for their alleged roles in the death of Anna’s mother, Peggy Schroeder.

Both girls are charged with concealing a homicidal death and arson.

Rachel Helm, (left) and Anna Schroeder. Photo courtesy SaukValley.com

Anna is charged with two counts of first degree murder, accused of shooting her hearing-impaired mother in the face.

The case has sparked questions about how juveniles charged with serious crimes - like murder - should be prosecuted. Some believe the girls should be charged as adults, rather than juveniles.

Anna’s defense attorney, Jim Mertes, disagrees.

“Are those people who say if you do an adult crime you do the time prepared to say a 14-year-old can join the military or a 12-year-old can be bound by a contract?” asked Mertes.

Mertes says minors should be held to different standards than adults. 

“There is no area of the law that treats a 15-year-old as an adult. That’s how we want it. Our emotional reactions are understandable, but the law is not guided by emotions or outrage. It can’t be. Sometimes the law saves us from ourselves,” said Mertes.

Two years ago, Illinois lawmakers made it tougher for minors to be automatically transferred to adult court – regardless if the charge is murder.

Now, a juvenile must be at least 16-years-old and is eligible only if charged with three specific crimes; first degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, or aggravated battery with a firearm.

George Timberlake is a retired juvenile judge in Chicago and says the change in the law is appropriate. He's spearheaded and backed legislative changes for minors in the justice system.

He says he sent many teens to prison, and when offenders are young, it's often not the best solution.

“I thought what I was doing was right," Timberlake said. "Much of what we did, did not reduce the likelihood of crime. It made it worse,."

Timberlake says he became an advocate for rehabilitating teens after learning more about their brains.

Moline child psychologist Richard Hutchison has counseled teens who have committed crimes like murder and speaking generally, he says juvenile cases are sensitive because the frontal lobe of the human brain – which helps you make reasonable decisions – doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20s.

“It’s not that children can’t think it’s just they don’t have the capabilities most adults do,” said Hutchison. “Kids should be held

Richard Hutchinson, child psychologist

responsible for their behavior but we should consider the child’s developmental age and their maturity.”

A judge is required by law to consider a child’s intellect and reasoning capacity before making a decision to try them in adult court.

If a minor’s murder case is bumped up to adult court, the potential penalty is life in prison. If tried as a minor, they could walk free after the age of 21.

While some people in Morrison have their minds made up, the final decision on whether Schroeder and Helm will be tried as adults or minors isn’t expected until next year.

Mertes filed a motion asking to have the state of Illinois pay $15,000 for Schroeder to undergo a psychological evaluation. Prosecutors have not ruled on the motion.

Another hearing for Schroeder will be on November 21 at 8:30 a.m. in Sterling.