By Laila Kearney
SAN ANDREAS, California (Reuters) - A 12-year-old boy accused of fatally stabbing his 8-year-old sister in their northern California home made a brief appearance on Wednesday in juvenile court, where he was presented with second-degree murder charges but entered no plea.
The boy's arrest on Saturday, two weeks after his sister, Leila Fowler, was slain, marked an abrupt turn in the investigation of a crime that sent a shudder of fear through Valley Springs, a Sierra foothill town some 60 miles southeast of Sacramento.
Authorities had initially launched a manhunt for a long-haired male intruder the boy claimed to have seen in the living room of the house shortly before finding his sister near death while the two were home alone.
The boy, who has not been publicly identified because he is a minor, remained silent during the brief hearing in Calaveras County juvenile court except to answer "yes" to a number of procedural questions put to him by the judge.
The middle-school student was ordered to return to court on May 29. No plea was entered.
Prosecutors charged the boy with second-degree murder - a willful but not premeditated killing - along with a "special allegation" that a dangerous weapon was used in the crime.
If found guilty, the young defendant may be incarcerated only until his 23rd birthday because he was under the age of 14 at the time of the offense, Mark Reichel, a member of the boy's legal team, told Reuters.
For the time being, the boy has been confined to a juvenile detention center.
The siblings' father and stepmother, who authorities said were away at a nearby Little League baseball game at the time of the killing, were present for the hearing, as was the children's biological mother.
Court records show the siblings' biological parents were embroiled in a bitter child support dispute.
The sheriff's office has declined to say what led detectives to identify the older brother as a suspect.
But the Calaveras County Sheriff's Office said last week the investigation was narrowing after a neighbor recanted her account of seeing a man running away from the Fowlers' home.
A sheriff's spokesman, Sergeant Chris Hewitt, said several knives removed from the house, along with fingerprints and DNA evidence, were analyzed at a state crime lab.
Defense lawyer Steven Plesser said after the hearing in San Andreas, the county seat, that the boy's legal team has "had very little time to spend with the minor and his family," adding, "We have no reason to doubt ... our client's innocence."
Experts said the case was very unusual because of the young age of the suspect.
Kathleen Heide, a University of South Florida criminologist and author of the book, "Young Killers: The Challenge of Juvenile Homicide," said killings of a brother or sister tend to be set off by jealousy, sibling rivalry, anger, mental illness, accidents and a preoccupation with violent imagery.
"Killings by 12-year-olds are very, very rare," she told Reuters.
Franklin Zimring, a University of California at Berkeley School of Law professor, also described the incidence of homicide by a child so young as "extraordinarily rare."
Plesser said a number of questions about the case remain unanswered, including how it would be "possible for a 12-year-old to commit an offense like this?"
Immediately after the killing, police had urged residents of Valley Springs, a town of about 3,500 people, to stay home with their doors locked while they searched for the tall, long-haired intruder described by the victim's brother.
"I know my son would never hurt his sister," the children's biological mother told a local television station the day before the boy's arrest. She said she had been battling for custody with the children's father.
Leila and her 12-year-old brother lived with their father, their stepmother and five other children.
(Additional reporting by Ronnie Cohen; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Kenneth Barry and Mohammad Zargham)