Wisconsin Slender Man trial verdict: What’s happening?

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Wisconsinites are still sorting out their feelings about the trial verdict

What is going on in Wisconsin?

An autistic man was found not guilty on Wednesday of second-degree murder for fatally shooting a student while brandishing a “Slender Man” knife at a Wisconsin middle school.

The 12-person jury handed down the verdict after a five-week trial, a trial that pitted school safety against the rights of the mentally ill.

The verdict continues a months-long debate about mental health and gun control in America, where the means of self-defence have resulted in violence, such as the mass shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017.

Have the protests continued?

Demonstrators protested on Thursday in a second successive day. Madison is a mile-long city. For its size, the main demonstration appeared to be small and noisier than the previous day.

“We’re back here demanding justice for Hadiya Pendleton,” said one protester. Her father Omar said the verdict should show that violence had no place in society.

“Justice? How can you bring justice when you ignore the rights of people with disabilities?”

But the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said most of the protesters were anti-gun activists who staged their own demonstrations this week.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Protesters gather in Madison on Thursday

Who is guilty?

Benjamin Williams has no criminal record. But he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2012.

Prosecutors said he once held an axe to his mother’s head and knocked out her teeth. His defence told the jury he was suffering from severe delusions.

He pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. In what seemed to be a hung jury on Wednesday, the jury deadlocked on whether he should be declared mentally defective and sent to a mental institution.

Under Wisconsin law, jurors are asked by the judge to decide if the accused is insane in order to find him guilty. The judge would then determine whether to declare him mentally unfit for trial, sending him to an institution for as long as necessary.

The judge declared the jury deadlocked, leading to the verdict on Wednesday.

How is the media talking about it?

Prosecutors portrayed Mr Williams as delusional. “All I want to do is protect my sisters,” he said before the attack.

His defence said he was not criminally responsible because he was suffering from psychosis.

The judge said the facts supporting each conclusion are key to understanding whether he was criminally responsible.

A pre-trial hearing in August sought to determine Mr Williams’ level of psychosis at the time of the attack.

The judge agreed with the defence’s medical experts who testified that Mr Williams could not have lawfully possessed the knife. A different judge disagreed in a previous court case that the knife had a plastic blade.

What happens next?

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board is to consider petitions for a repeal of state restrictions on gun ownership, but in the meantime, Mr Williams has been released.

Another court hearing will take place in December to determine whether he is mentally fit to stand trial again.

Meanwhile, a lawyer for the slain teenager’s family has requested an internal investigation by the Dane County Sheriff’s Department, demanding “supervisory negligence”.

‘Compelling’ evidence

“I think there was compelling evidence that this young man was disturbed,” Judge Michael Bohren told the court on Wednesday.

“It was an inexplicable act,” he said, referring to the killing, which “can’t be supported by facts”.

The judge also stressed the limited nature of the attack in contrast to a mass murder in Las Vegas or Florida last year.

“This is less than a millionth of what we normally see,” the judge said, referring to the number of mass shootings in the US every year.

After the verdict, hundreds of people gathered for a candlelight vigil in front of the 12-year-old victim’s house.

“This family suffered a great loss,” Madison Mayor Paul Soglin said. “It was a senseless act and a tragic loss, and it deserves a response that is purposeful, but not a kneejerk response.

“I urge all of you to go on with your lives as you normally would, but if you find yourself in need of comfort or solace, please come out and talk to someone.”

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