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Schroeder murder: Judge faces ‘monumental decision’

Arguments for and against Morrison teen’s transfer to adult court wrap up

STERLING – The difference in outcomes is staggering:

If convicted as a minor in the murder of her mother, Anna Schroeder would do her time in a juvenile facility, with all the treatment options that system has to offer, until she turns 21, or until officials in the system decide she is rehabilitated and set her free, whichever comes first. It's called an indeterminate sentence.

If convicted as an adult, the girl who turned 15 just 3 days before the July 6 shooting would face a mandatory 20 to 60 years in prison, with no reduction of sentence, no "good time" credit – the full ride, and most of it in adult prison.

It's "a monumental decision," and one Whiteside County Circuit Court Judge Trish Joyce said she is not taking lightly.

After listening to a full day of testimony Tuesday and an hour of arguments for and against the following morning, Joyce said she will review her notes, pore over the case files and issue her decision at a hearing at 9 a.m. June 21.

Schroeder shot her mother, Peggy Schroeder, 53, in the head at point-blank range July 6 in their Morrison home. Her girlfriend, Rachel Helm, 16, of Rock Falls, tried to help her clean up after the murder, and has admitted to setting a fire in the house to conceal Schroeder's crime. Her case was transferred to adult court on April 3.

According Tuesday's testimony by the lead investigator, sheriff's Detective David Molina, texts between the two show that Helm urged Schroeder to kill her mother multiple times in the weeks before the actual shooting, out of fear that Peggy would end the girls' romantic relationship.

State's Attorney Terry Costello and Assistant State's Attorney Carol Linkowski filed the motion to try Schroeder as an adult.

The seriousness of the crime, the fact that Schroeder used a deadly weapon and caused great bodily harm, and the danger to others caused by the fire and by leaving a loaded gun in a cemetery are sufficient factors to justify the move under state statute, Linkowski said Wednesday morning in a brief oral argument.

In addition, the punishment she would face if convicted as a juvenile "is not adequate," Linkowski said.

Schroeder is charged with two counts of first-degree murder, concealment of homicidal death, and arson.

As opposed to being released at 21 in the juvenile system, if convicted as an adult, she would face 3 to 7 years, plus 2 years supervised release for arson; 2 to 5 years plus 1 year supervised release for concealment; and at least 20 years plus 3 years mandatory supervised release for murder, Linkowski said.

In addition, under state law, Schroeder would remain at the Mary Davis juvenile detention facility in Galesburg for the duration of her trial and, upon conviction, until she turns 18, and so would be able to benefit from its treatment and other programs before being transferred to prison, she said.

Schroeder's attorney, Jim Mertes of Sterling, took up the bulk of the hour, reminding Joyce of the recent "sea change" in Illinois' approach to juvenile justice, a far less harsher approach brought about by a new understanding of how the adolescent brain functions and matures – a matter of the law catching up with the science, he said.

Mertes underscored what he called the Legislature's intent "to treat children like children" when it recently overhauled the state's Juvenile Justice Act, which, among other things, no longer allows 15-year-olds to be automatically transferred to adult court, no matter the crime.

Instead, a hearing must be held at which, by statute, the judge must consider the "unique circumstances" of each case and each individual defendant, and take into account not only the risk to the public but also the best interest of the child when it comes to punishment.

When deciding whether to transfer a minor to adult court, in addition to public safety, the seriousness of the crime, whether a weapon was involved, and whether there was premeditation, the judge also must consider factors such as the juvenile's prior criminal history, physical abuse or neglect, mental and physical health, education, and access to treatment – and whether a successful outcome can be obtained before the child is set to return to society.

Mertes hearkened back to Tuesday's testimony from the defense's forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Stevan Weine of Chicago, who talked about how the part of the adolescent brain responsible for risk-taking, a lack of self-control, poor decision making and susceptibility to peer pressure develops much faster than the part of the brain that controls those impulsive behaviors.

Stable influences during that period are supposed to help teens keep that behavior in check, but in Schroeder's case, a turbulent family situation, problems and school and other factors undermined that stability, he said.

Weine also noted Schroeder's mental health issues, which included depression, anxiety, attention problems, self-mutilation and a suicide attempt a month before she shot her mother, which he blamed in part on an adverse reaction to the antidepressant Zoloft and on a lack of proper diagnosis and treatment.

Schroeder is especially sensitive and vulnerable to peer pressure, and likely would not have committed the crime if not for Rachel's influence, or if she had gotten any psychological treatment after her suicide attempt., Weine said.

Mertes acknowledged the heinous nature of the murder, and that many people believe that if you commit an adult crime, you should do the adult time.

He urged Joyce, however, to follow the Legislature's new path, which it based on a growing body of scientific and sociological information on the physiological forces that govern adolescent behavior, and to keep Schroeder in juvenile court, wherein lies her best chance for proper treatment.

"We don't really, earnestly believe that a child should be treated as an adult just because we're outraged by the offense."

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