By Ronnie Cohen
SAN ANDREAS, California (Reuters) - A 12-year-old boy accused of fatally stabbing his younger sister in a crime that traumatized their California town denied a second-degree murder charge through his attorney in juvenile court on Wednesday, and the boy's lawyer said he planned a vigorous defense.
The boy, who is identified in court as Isaiah F., appeared in shackles and spoke only once during the proceeding in Calaveras County juvenile court when he agreed to continue to waive his right to a speedy trial.
The case has drawn widespread attention because of the age of the boy and the rare crime of killing a sister. If convicted, he could be incarcerated until his 23rd birthday. One of his lawyers, Mark Reichel, said the boy denied the charge.
"Our view of the case hasn't changed," Reichel said outside the courtroom after the hearing. "We got in believing our client was innocent, and as we stand here, that's what we believe."
Judge John E. Martin set a July 31 hearing to schedule a date for a juvenile bench trial for the tall, dark-haired boy, who looked back at his mother, father and his father's fiancée, who were in attendance at the hearing.
"We're concerned about whether or not a 12-year-old can actively participate in his own defense," Reichel said.
The boy said an intruder had slain his 8-year-old sister, Leila Fowler, on April 27, setting off a massive manhunt and paralyzing the sleepy town of Valley Springs for two weeks while police searched for a long-haired stranger.
But two weeks later, authorities arrested the brother and he was charged with second-degree murder on May 15.
The defense had planned to ask the judge to release Isaiah to his family, but Reichel said that they have left their home and have no place to care for him.
Prosecutors declined immediate comment on the case after Wednesday's hearing.
'BEAUTIFUL LITTLE GIRL'
The family's ranch house on a parched, unlandscaped lot appeared vacant on Wednesday. Bags of garbage, toy trucks, an exercise machine, a mattress, and a faded plastic slide filled the front yard. A sign saying "Welcome to the Looney Bin" sat in the weeds next to the front porch.
Neighbor Dana Wydner, who was adjusting a purple bouquet of synthetic flowers tied to a mailbox across the street, said it was a shock to learn of Leila's death and Isaiah's arrest.
"She was just a beautiful little girl, always out there playing," Wydner said. "They were good kids. They were just a normal family."
Reichel has said Isaiah was suspended for five days in January for bringing a "tiny little Swiss Army knife" to school. But he was otherwise "a very normal boy in a very normal setting with normal siblings," the lawyer said in advance of the hearing.
Isaiah and Leila lived with their father and his longtime fiancée in a blended family of seven children where money was tight, court documents and police reports show.
The records show that the father, Barney Fowler, a boat mechanic, was involved in child-support disputes with three different women, including the mother of Leila and Isaiah.
Family court records show the children's mother, Priscilla Rodriguez, was largely cut off from Leila and her brother. After the court hearing on Wednesday, she declined to comment.
Whether Rodriguez chose to keep her distance, as Fowler said in court papers seeking child-support payments, or was essentially denied access to her children by their father, as she suggests, remains unclear. She claimed in a court declaration last year to be indigent and homeless.
(Reporting by Laila Kearney and Ronnie Cohen; Writing by Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Eric Beech and Bill Trott)