(USA TODAY) -- The prosecutor in Murrysville, Pa., had no choice but to charge high school stabbing suspect Alex Hribal as an adult, but his defense attorney can ask a judge to transfer the 16-year-old high school sophomore to the juvenile system.
Pennsylvania law says a child 15 or older who commits aggravated assault or attempted murder must be tried in adult court.
"It's not a discretionary matter," says Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City prosecutor and a law professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "The legislature has considered the equities, and they've decided what the right thing is for the prosecutors."
Hribal is charged with four counts of attempted murder, 21 counts of aggravated assault and possession of a weapon at school in the early-morning knife attack Wednesday at his high school, which injured a security guard and more than a dozen children, including four gravely.
Hribal's lawyer, Patrick Thomassey, has said he will seek to have the case moved to juvenile court, which would offer rehabilitation and a shorter sentence. In interviews, Thomassey has emphasized Hribal's small stature and mental confusion.
"He's scared," Thomassey told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "He's a young kid. He's 16, looking like he's 12. This is all still new to him."
Thomassey can ask the court for a hearing to determine whether Hribal should be tried in juvenile court, says Emily Keller, staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. At such a hearing, a judge would consider the suspect's culpability, the danger he poses to the public and whether he could be helped by treatment, supervision and rehabilitation.
"Adult systems are ill-equipped to provide any sort of mental health or rehabilitative services for children," says Carmen Daugherty, policy director with the Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington, D.C.
Developing teenage brains function differently than adult brains when making decisions and controlling impulses, Daugherty says.
"It's important to look at the whole picture," she says. "Do they know right from wrong? Sure, but that's not the right question to ask. You have to ask if they understand the consequences."
In the 1990s, many states sought to get tough on juvenile crime by passing laws to move older children who commit violent crimes to adult court, taking the decision out of the hands of prosecutors and judges.
"It used to be that when a decision was made to try someone as an adult, that decision was made by a judge," says Elizabeth Calvin, senior advocate in the children's rights division of Human Rights Watch.
"Juvenile court is there to punish kids, but it's also there to offer the kind of treatment and services to pull kids back from the brink and put them on the right path," she says. "Adult court is more about determining someone's guilt and punishing them."