For more than two years, since they were 12 years-old, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser have spent their life inside separate Wisconsin facilities awaiting trial before being charged as adults for attempted first-degree intentional homicide.
If found guilty of stabbing their friend Payton Leunter 19 times and leaving her for dead in a park, they each face up to 65 years in prison.
“They did it. They admitted it. Of course they’re guilty, but how much do we hold them accountable?” asks Irene Taylor Brodsky, the director of HBO documentary Beware the Slenderman, which debuts Jan. 23. “All of this is predicated on the fundamental bedrock principle that children cannot be held accountable for the same things as adults.”
Anissa and Morgan, now 15 and 14 respectively, have pleaded not guilty by reason of mental illness or defect. Their attorneys have filed motions to move the upcoming trial into the juvenile justice system but have been repeatedly denied.
On May 31, 2014, the girls told investigators they plotted to kill their friend because Slenderman, a fictional Internet character, would harm them and their loved ones if they didn’t. Payton, also 12 at the time, miraculously survived after she crawled to a nearby bike path and a passerby called 911.
“ can be anywhere from 6 feet to 14-feet tall. He constantly wears a suit. He doesn’t have a face. His skin is white,” Anissa told investigators in a taped interview. “At his own will, he can, like, explode these tendrils from his back, and, like, strangle his victims.”
In the documentary, Morgan’s mother talks about her daughter’s fascination with the character.
“While I wasn’t thrilled about her interest in it, I didn’t see the harm in it either,” says Angie Geyser, Morgan’s mother. “We never thought for a moment that she could possibly, for a moment, believe it was real.”
Psychologist Dr. Abigail Baird says teens are “one or two clicks away” from anything they want to explore on the Internet. And the incident was a “strange, perfect storm” of influences and factors.
“People are looking for a villain here and it’s not the Internet – it’s the criminal justice system,” Baird says. “I don’t think they’re guilty in the true sense of the word. I think they’re responsible for what happened. To be guilty is to understand what you’ve done.”