SALT LAKE CITY -- A teenage boy accused of killing 12-year-old Kailey Vijil made his first appearance before a juvenile court judge on a charge of aggravated murder.
The 15-year-old boy sat shackled at the waist in a green sweatsuit. As he was brought into the courtroom, he looked out at his family seated in the audience but had no expression on his face. FOX 13 is not naming the teen because he is a juvenile and has not been certified as an adult.
Third District Juvenile Court Judge James Michie told the boy he was facing "a very serious charge." He asked the boy if he understood what he was facing.
"Yes," the boy mumbled.
Judge Michie carefully explained the process the teen now faces, asking him repeatedly if he understood and urging him to talk to a large group of lawyers appointed to represent him if he had any questions.
"My immediate concern is that my client may not really understand what's going on," defense attorney Bill Russell told the judge.
Judge Michie granted a brief recess for his lawyers to meet with him in a holding cell. When they came back, his attorneys raised more questions about whether he understood the process or was overwhelmed with the court proceedings.
"To be perfectly frank with the court, in talking to him, I don’t believe there’s any real understanding," said Patrick Corum, another attorney appointed to represent the boy. "I believe he’s learned to nod along when asked 'Do you understand?'"
Judge Michie addressed the boy directly, urging him to speak to his lawyers.
"You've been charged with a very, very serious crime. Murder. The state has to prove it," Judge Michie told the boy as they set an Aug. 27 hearing.
Defense lawyers refused to talk outside of court.
Prosecutors accuse the boy of strangling Kailey last week in a field in West Valley City. Charging documents allege the boy knocked on the door of the Vijil home and asked her 14-year-old sister to help him look for a lost cat. When the girl refused, prosecutors said, the teen asked Kailey who left with him.
Salt Lake County prosecutors are asking the judge to certify the teen to face trial as an adult.
The procedure requires hearings and a series of evaluations about the boy's home life, criminal history and likelihood of rehabilitation, said Clayton Simms, a criminal defense attorney who often represents juvenile defendants and is not connected to this case.
"The judge sort of takes the totality of the situation and looks at that individual," Simms told FOX 13.
If he is certified as an adult and convicted of aggravated murder, he could only face life in prison. If he remains in the juvenile system and convicted, the teen can only be detained until he is 21, Simms said.