All four suspected attackers, and the alleged victim, are Liberian refugees. At separate hearings during which one of the young defendants openly wept, judges ordered that no one be allowed to interview the 9-year-old suspects without the permission of their lawyers, court-appointed advocates and Child Protective Services.
Both lawyers indicated they would advise the boys not to speak to Liberia's emissary, deputy ambassador Edwin Sele, who was sent by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for a weeklong fact-finding mission, and to dispel notions that rape is condoned in their West African country.
Sele said he wants the boys to know that being innocent until proven guilty is a hallmark of the U.S. justice system and that he also wants to meet with the 8-year-old girl to tell her that all Liberians extend their love to her.
The rape case drew international attention last month after police reported the alleged victim's parents said they were ashamed of the girl and didn't want her back — a contention later disputed by the family's pastor. The girl remains in custody of Child Protective Services.
During the alleged July 16 attack, police say the 9-year-old boys and two teenagers lured the girl to an empty storage shed with the promise of chewing gum, restrained her and took turns raping her. A 14-year-old has been charged as an adult, and prosecutors are seeking to charge a 13-year-old as an adult, as well.
The Liberian deputy ambassador, Sele, said during a news conference that he still hopes to interview the four boys despite the hurdles ahead of him. "I'm sure we can speak to CPS and find ways to do this legally," said Sele.
One of the 9-year-old boys, whose ankles and wrists were shackled during Wednesday's hearing, slouched in his oversized chair and was expressionless until Judge Aimee Anderson spoke directly to him.
"I will tell you I'm very proud of you for being back there and working so hard," she said as she held up a certificate that his juvenile facility had given him for good behavior. "I know it's not easy and pretty hard to make friends in there... Hang in there, OK?"
As she spoke, tears poured down his face and his sniffles could be heard over a courtroom microphone.
Anderson granted prosecutors' request to change two of the boy's charges from sexual assault to sexual conduct. He also is charged with kidnapping.
Minutes later at a separate hearing, the other 9-year-old charged in the case sat quietly and looked around curiously from time to time. Judge Dawn Bergin ordered that his sexual assault charge be changed to sexual conduct, also at prosecutors' request.
The 9-year-old boys' uncle, whom The Associated Press is not identifying because he shares a last name with one of the boys, told the AP outside court that he was skeptical about whether his nephews had committed rape. "It's hard to believe a 9-year-old could commit rape," he said.
He said the boys are cousins, came to the U.S. about six years ago and had been living in Phoenix with their grandmother. He said neither remembers their life in Liberia, speak very limited English and don't understand what's going on in court.
During the hearings, a court-appointed advocate for the boys said the parents of one of them still live in Africa, while the other's mother is dead and his father is in Africa.
Neither have legal guardians, she said, which is why she said she will file dependency petitions for each of them in hopes of getting them out of juvenile detention and placing them with an uncle or in Child Protective Services.
Phoenix police released a lengthy report about the rape late Wednesday.
All four boys admitted to participating in the assault, and two referred to it as rape, according to the report.
"(The boy) told me that he saw them 'raping' her," wrote investigator Patricia Fimbresa about one of the 9-year-olds. "I asked (him) to tell me what he meant by 'raping her.' (He) told me that it was when you see a girl and take them somewhere that nobody sees, and you do things to them and run away."
The report also details interactions between police and the girl's parents.
Investigator Samantha Pimentel wrote that when she talked to the girl's father on July 23, he appeared disgusted and frustrated and said in front of his daughter that all she does is cause problems and ruin the family's chances of becoming U.S. citizens.
Pimentel wrote the girl's mother then came out and pulled her daughter by the ear to take her inside, causing the girl to scream in pain, according to the report.
Another investigator, Jacquelyn MacConnell, wrote that the father told investigators that "it is her fault."
After instructing the other officers to take the girl away, MacConnell wrote that she confronted the parents.
"I walked up to both of them ... and advised them that they both needed to be educated," she wrote. "They questioned the comment and I told both of them in plain, exact and slow English, 'Your daughter was raped, it is not her fault."'
Pastor James Nyemah, who is acting as the family's spokesman, said the father's statements were the result of a misunderstanding stemming from a language barrier and that he desperately wants his daughter back.
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