Sienna Johnson, Accused School-Attack Plotter: No Forced Pre-Hearing Mental Test

A Facebook photo of Sienna Johnson. Additional images and more below.
A Facebook photo of Sienna Johnson. Additional images and more below.

Update: In December 2015, two sixteen-year-olds — later identified as Sienna Johnson and Brooke Higgins — were arrested and taken into custody on suspicion of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder as part of an alleged plan to attack Mountain View High School in Douglas County, where they were students.

Plenty of legal maneuvering followed, and it's not over.

The Colorado Supreme Court has now issued separate rulings pertaining to the teens, both of whom have been charged as adults by the office of 18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler. See them below.

The most significant decision pertains to Johnson. The Supreme Court has determined that a hearing about whether to move the case to juvenile court can go forward without her either submitting her previous mental-health records or being subjected to a state-mandated mental-health analysis.

Thus far, as we've reported, prosecutors have shared only a few details about the alleged plot. They say Johnson made maps of the school that showed student movement and the schedule of a police officer assigned to the facility, among other things. Also mentioned were claims that she'd previously harmed pets and had attempted to fake her mental progress during post-arrest treatment at Children's Hospital.

A Facebook photo of Brooke Higgins.
A Facebook photo of Brooke Higgins.

The DA's office also maintains that Johnson referred to Higgins as "someone who's got what it takes" in her journal, adding that the two of them were capable of teaming up to become an "unstoppable" force that would "prove what we are capable of" by turning Mountain Vista into "a living fucking nightmare."

Higgins, for her part, allegedly had a fascination with the 1999 attack on Columbine High School and expressed a wish to have taken part in the massacre. Mentioned by the DA's office was a photo of her taken in front of Columbine.

Even before Higgins was publicly named as a suspect, her attorney, Dagny Van Der Jagt, attempted to distance her from Johnson, releasing a statement that reads in part:

It is important for the public to understand that the case involving Sienna Johnson and the case involving my client are two separate cases involving two very different individuals and very different facts and circumstances. The girls were casual school acquaintances who had associated with each other for a brief time. They have different backgrounds, personalities, motivations and behaviors. Ms. Johnson has been charged as an adult based on the facts of her case. She is represented by a public defender. My client is being held without charge pending a hearing on Thursday in which prosecutors will decide whether to charge her and, if so, whether to try her as an adult or as a juvenile.

My client and her family have cooperated fully with the investigation. They voluntarily consented to a search of their home for weapons (none were found) when contacted by law enforcement in December and consented to a voluntary psychiatric screening while investigators gathered facts in both cases. They will continue to cooperate with the District Attorney’s office as the investigation proceeds.

Additionally, Higgins's family signed up with GBSM, a powerful Denver-based management consulting, strategic communications and public affairs firm. The company's image rehabilitation efforts included the release of a Higgins portrait that is considerably more staid than the Facebook images that had surfaced earlier.

The GBSM-released portrait of Brooke Higgins.
The GBSM-released portrait of Brooke Higgins.
The Higgins family via GBSM

Since January, representatives of Johnson and Higgins have fought attempts to prosecute them as adults — efforts the Colorado Supreme Court rulings address.

The Johnson document identifies "two questions involving what a trial court may order when a juvenile seeks a reverse-transfer of her criminal case from trial court to juvenile court."

The first asks, "When a juvenile requests a reverse-transfer hearing, does she waive her psychotherapist-patient privilege, thereby authorizing a trial court to order her to produce privileged mental-health records?" The second considers whether a specific Colorado statute gives "a trial court the power to order a juvenile to submit to a state mental-health assessment."

Here's a summary of the court's ruling:

The Supreme Court holds that, because nothing in the statute states that a juvenile waives her psychotherapist-patient privilege by requesting a reverse-transfer hearing, a trial court cannot order the juvenile to produce privileged mental-health records. As to the second question, the Supreme Court holds that, because nothing in the statute explicitly grants a trial court the power to order a mental-health assessment, a trial court cannot order such an assessment. The reverse-transfer statute only requires that the trial court consider mental-health records "made available."

Another Facebook photo of Sienna Johnson.
Another Facebook photo of Sienna Johnson.

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Higgins's attorneys also asked if she could be required by a trial court to undergo a state-administered mental-health exam prior to a reverse-transfer proceeding. "The Supreme Court answered that question in the negative in 'Johnson,' but does not answer that question here because it is hypothetical — the question is not based on the facts of this case," the decision in the Higgins court notes.

The lawyers also asked if a trial court must "provide a juvenile with warnings based on the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination" before a mental-health assessment is conducted. The court declined to address this matter because "Higgins consented to the evaluation while represented by counsel" and "any claims that ineffective assistance of counsel vitiated Higgins's consent are premature."

The 18th Judicial District DA's office reacted to these moves with the following statement: “Because these matters are subject to further and ongoing litigation, and taking into consideration ethical rules governing attorneys, it would be inappropriate for us to comment at this time.”

Hearings for both teens are in the offing. Higgins is due in Douglas County District Court tomorrow, October 5, while Johnson's next appearance is slated for October 21. Look below to see both Colorado Supreme Court rulings.

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