Should a 10-Year-Old Be Held Responsible for Murder as an Adult? Wisconsin Case Presents Rare Legal Conundrum

iStock spoke with experts about how children who commit crimes should be treated in the legal system.

Should a child be held responsible for murder the same way an adult is? The case of a 10-year-old Wisconsin girl charged as an adult in the killing of a 6-month-old has sparked controversy around the country and ignited debate around that very question.

Wisconsin state law dictates anyone age 10 or older accused of felony first-degree homicide must first have their case brought in adult court, but some argue that's far too harsh for someone who might not even be capable of comprehending death.

“It is very, very rare for a child this young to be in this situation,” Marcy Mistrett, chief executive at the Campaign for Youth Justice, told “We know that kids who go into adult facilities do much worse than those who get placed in the juvenile system. 

"None of this is to take away the horror of the loss of this infant child," Mistrett added, but she emphasized that a crime committed by a child must be treated differently than one carried out by an adult. 

Mistrett's organization is working to end the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating children under 18, who, she says, are far too young to face the same system and penalties that adults do.

In the Wisconsin case, the 10-year-old, who has not been identified because of her age, had been residing at a licensed home day care in Tilden as a foster child since September.

On Oct. 30, the girl allegedly dropped the baby boy, who hit his head and began crying, according to prosecutors. The girl allegedly panicked and stomped on the baby's head to quiet him, fearing she would get in trouble. The baby was rushed to Gillette Children’s Hospital for treatment, but died from his injuries two days later. 

The girl appeared in Chippewa County Court on Nov. 5, where she was charged with first-degree intentional homicide by someone age 10 or older. She reportedly sobbed as the case was described. 

Laurence Steinberg, an adolescent psychologist, said it is rare that juveniles are tried as adults, and should be limited to repeat violent offenders who are at least 15 years old. 

A girl who is just 10 wouldn’t likely pass a competency test to stand trial, Steinberg said, adding that it is unconstitutional to try someone in court “who doesn’t understand what is going on."

“They certainly don’t have the capacity to foresee the future consequences of their actions,” Steinberg told “This 10-year-old child might throw the infant down on the floor but doesn’t realize that doing that will kill it.”

Wisconsin is the only state that sets the age to be charged as an adult for felony first-degree homicide at 10. For most states, the age is 15 or 16.

In the 2014 case of two 12-year-old girls who repeatedly stabbed their classmate to honor the made-up internet character “Slenderman,” the Wisconsin Supreme Court made the decision to try the girls, Anissa Weier, and Morgan Geyser, as adults. 

Weier and Geyser pleaded guilty, and were each sentenced to 25 and 40 years respectively in a mental institution. Geyser is currently appealing her case. 

In the instance of the 10-year-old, District Attorney Wade Newell said the case could later be moved to juvenile court, the Superior Telegram reported. Steinberg thinks that would be the right decision.

“The adult system doesn’t have the capacity to respond to the needs of younger individuals in developmentally appropriate ways," he said.