Morgan Geyser was a 12-year-old murder suspect when she blankly nodded at Detective Tom Casey, agreeing to sign a piece of paper and waive her Miranda rights. Sitting in a folding chair in a tiny holding room in suburban Waukesha, Wisconsin, in late spring 2014, she picked up a pen and wrote only her first name. “She signed away her Miranda rights by printing her first name,” her mother, Angie Geyser, tells Rolling Stone. Angie is now fighting to have the subsequent interrogation and confession thrown out.
The night before, Morgan had hosted a birthday sleepover for two 12-year-old friends, Anissa Weier and Payton Luetner, known as Bella to her friends. Morgan and Anissa’s plan was specific: to stab Bella to death for Slender Man, a menacing, faceless Internet character who, according to the crowd-sourced legend, seduces children into another reality where they are safe from the pain of this world. A mix of Tim Burton’s Jack Skellington and the Pied Piper, ‘Slender’ demands blood sacrifices from children, so that they can become his proxies, thereby ensuring the safety of their families. Most kids understand this is a scary story, but Morgan, who was later diagnosed with early-onset schizophrenia, wasn’t able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.
At first, the birthday party was a hit. Morgan’s father took the girls to a roller rink, and they came home exhausted and fell asleep soon after. The next day the girls set out into the chilly late-morning toward Big Bend Road, where, with Anissa’s assistance, Morgan repeatedly stabbed Bella with a small kitchen knife. Morgan cleaned Bella’s wounds with a leaf, then she and Anissa left Bella and walked down Interstate 94, toward Slender Man’s palace in the great, cold woods of Wisconsin’s Nicolet National Forest.
Angie Geyser remembers that morning well. “A uniformed officer sat with us while they looked for them, and at some point in the day they told us that Bella had been hurt and that Morgan did it,” she says. “We had no idea how serious it was, we were thinking maybe they played a game that went awry, but it never crossed our mind – not for a second – that Morgan would purposefully hurt someone.”
After crawling to the edge of the woods, Bella was discovered by a passing bicyclist, who called 911, saving her life. The police soon found Morgan and Anissa walking down the highway and took them into custody. Burrowing into state-proffered blankets, talking with a flat, dispassionate tone, Morgan Geyser calmly gave her confession to Detective Casey.
Though she hadn’t suspected that her daughter was schizophrenic, when Angie found out what her daughter had done, she immediately thought of the disease. “Our family history of schizophrenia was the first thing we brought up to her lawyers,” she says. “That was the only logical explanation that we could wrap our heads around.”
Geyser’s attorney, Anthony Cotton, is petitioning the court to retract this confession on the basis of Morgan Geyser’s schizophrenic psychosis, young age and various technical errors he has said were made during the process of receiving and recording Geyser’s confession. “The age factor is more important than the psychosis,” says Angie. “But the two of them together is a strong case to suggest that she didn’t know what was going on.”
Yet beyond the confession, Angie’s first priority was making sure that her daughter got treatment for her disease. Thanks to petitions and persistence of her parents, Morgan is now in the Winnebago Mental Health Institute instead of a windowless room in prison. “It took us 19 months to get her treatment after she was arrested,” Angie says. “This isn’t about Slender Man. It could be a really good opportunity to have a conversation about mental illness, about this illness in childhood, about children in court. And I wish there would be more focus on that.”
After months of withdrawing into constant hallucinations – at one point, even stabbing herself with a pencil – Morgan Geyser began taking medication. As it took effect, Angie explains, Morgan’s psychosis retracted and her hallucinations disappeared. She was able to perceive what she had done to her friend and understand the fact that she now faced decades in prison. Before the medication, Morgan had not been aware of her surroundings. She didn’t have any emotion or preference about her circumstances, and she even told her parents that she didn’t care if she went to jail since her hallucinations would be there to keep her company. But now, with medication, reality has set in. “When she thinks back to the reason that she was arrested, it’s like looking at another persons memory,” Angie says shakily. “It’s hard for her to grasp why she’s in custody when she’s better now.”
When the court finally rules on Morgan’s petition to suppress her confession in February, it’s possible that the judge will reference the landmark 1986 Supreme Court case, Colorado v. Connelly. There, the court ruled to uphold a murder confession, despite the defendant’s schizophrenia diagnosis. The verdict was immediately controversial; Justices William Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall vociferously dissented, with Brennan noting that the ruling went against a defendant’s “fundamental right to make a vital choice with a sane mind.” It was unconstitutional, he believed, to accept a confession from a psychotic person. “Use of a mentally ill person’s involuntary confession is antithetical to the notion of fundamental fairness embodied in the due process clause,” he wrote. Since the Supreme Court’s ruling, legal interpretations have been varied.
According to Raneta Lawson Mack, Professor of Law at Creighton University, the process of signing away Miranda rights “is flimsy, because understanding the consequences of waiving them goes beyond knowing your age and your address. That requires them to understand ‘I’m here, talking to the police, this could affect the rest of my life.’ It requires various levels of thinking to comprehend what you are signing.”
Angie is hoping the judge will agree with Mack. “Everyone is so focused on ‘we have to pay, someone has to pay for what happened,'” Angie says quietly “And I’m not trying to diminish what happened to her friend, or the horror.” But, as she waits for a judge to make a decision early next month, she maintains that her daughter was not capable of waiving her rights back in 2014.
“She can’t legally do anything: she can’t vote, she can’t join the military, she can’t consent to sex, she can’t do anything without her parents permission,” Angie says. “So how is it OK for her to sign her rights away? They aren’t her rights – they are your parents to give away. It should have been our decision. She’s our child.”
What started as a photograph doctored for an Internet contest took on a life of its own – leading two preteen girls to attempt murder. Watch here.