Hours after his arrest, Jake T. Patterson confessed to blasting his way into Jayme Closs’ Barron, Wis., home, executing her parents and kidnapping her.
But conspicuously absent from the narrative Barron County authorities provided in a 12-page criminal complaint this week: details of what happened in the three months Patterson held the 13-year-old girl captive two counties to the north.
Prosecutors in Douglas County could file additional charges against Patterson for various other crimes: among them, false imprisonment or any sort of assault committed against Jayme on his wooded Gordon, Wis., property while she was missing for 88 days, legal experts said. For instance, Jayme told authorities Patterson once hit her with an object, according to the court documents in Barron.
But it will be a sensitive decision, especially in a high-profile case where the victim’s name and photo appeared on billboards, trucks, social media and international news as part of a massive search — and where a trial would be highly publicized and possibly televised.
While seeking the truth, prosecutors will be balancing several other objectives, including safeguarding the public, getting the proper punishment for the perpetrator and protecting the victim from further harm through her possible court testimony.
While prosecutors may want to pile on charges against Patterson in an attempt to ensure the 21-year-old stays behind bars until he dies, “it may very well be that, out of concern for [Jayme’s] emotional and psychological well-being, that they want to limit her experience in a courtroom to the most serious charges involving homicide and the original kidnapping,” said Daniel Blinka, a Marquette University law professor who formerly prosecuted sensitive crimes. “It’s not like they need additional charges to emphasize the seriousness … of this offense.”
The first charges against Patterson in the initial complaint — two counts of first-degree intentional homicide — each call for a sentence of “imprisonment for life,” the document spells out. Additional kidnapping and armed burglary charges call for up to 40 years and up to 15 years in prison, respectively.
But in Wisconsin, if Patterson is found guilty, a judge must determine what life in prison actually means.
It could mean Patterson never gets out, or it could mean he’s eligible for release under extended supervision at some point — as soon as 20 years for an intentional homicide count, though experts said that would be highly unlikely in this case.
At sentencing, judges make their determinations based on factors such as the seriousness of the crime, the safety of the community and the defendant’s criminal history and rehabilitative potential. The judge decides whether sentences run consecutively or concurrently.
Prosecutors aiming for a maximum sentence “typically would want to throw everything they could” at a defendant like Patterson, said Keith Findley, a former defense attorney who is now a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison. But in such a high-profile case, he said, “they will have to try to figure out how to weigh any additional harm that may be done to this child.”
Prosecutors aren’t legally compelled to charge every crime, experts said. Those in a different jurisdiction can’t charge a defendant for substantially the same crime, because that would violate the Constitution’s double jeopardy clause. So any charges in Douglas County would have to be distinct from those in Barron, experts said.
Patterson is due to return to Barron County Circuit Court for a preliminary hearing on Feb. 6. There, a judge will determine whether there is probable cause that Patterson committed a felony in order to keep him for trial. He is not expected to enter a plea.
Douglas County District Attorney Mark Fruehauf said at a news conference this week that he anticipated having more information on any additional charges before then.
“My office is still in the process of reviewing the reports on the case to determine whether or not there are any additional charges that would be filed in Douglas County,” he said.
Experts said Fruehauf and his colleagues are not under intense time pressure, however. They could potentially wait to see how the charges in Barron County are resolved before deciding whether additional charges against Patterson are necessary.
Similarly, Barron County prosecutors could amend charges against Patterson, too. They are likely still sifting through evidence, experts said.
Barron County District Attorney Brian Wright said at a news conference after the charges were filed that it is “extremely important” for prosecutors to get a conviction in the case.
“We have two parents of a 13-year-old who are deceased. We have a 13-year-old who was abducted for 88 days against her will, forcibly,” he said. “It doesn’t get any more serious than that. And I assure you that these prosecutors here, all of us, want justice for both James and Denise and for Jayme.”
The 88 days Jayme spent in Patterson’s house might not have been detailed in the initial charges, Findley said, because authorities may still be trying to determine what happened there.
“This sounds like very powerful evidence, pretty compelling, but remember it’s preliminary,” said Findley, who co-founded the Wisconsin Innocence Project. “This is one version of events, this is one side of the story. I don’t know if there’s a second side. … [Patterson] currently enjoys a presumption of innocence.”