11/27/2014 04:09 EST | Updated 01/27/2015 05:59 EST

Crown to seek adult sentence if youth convicted of Rinelle Harper assault

WINNIPEG - Crown prosecutors in Manitoba say they will be seeking an adult sentence if a youth charged with attacking a 16-year-old girl and leaving her to die by a river is convicted.

The 17-year-old accused, who cannot be named, appeared in youth court Wednesday. The wiry teen, with wispy facial hair, sat expressionless as his case was discussed. There were no family members present.

The Crown attorney's office said it has given notice it will be requesting the youth be sentenced as an adult if he is found guilty. It declined to comment further.

The request came as no surprise to defence lawyer Ted Mariash. The Crown is obligated to give notice before any pleas are entered, he said.

"It's common for those very serious offences," Mariash said. "It's just strictly the nature of the charges. The significant publicity of the case has little to nothing to do with that decision made by the Crown.

"It only becomes relevant if he's convicted after trial."

When asked how his client was faring in custody, Mariash said "no comment."

The youth and 20-year-old Justin James Hudson are facing numerous charges, including attempted murder and aggravated sexual assault in two separate assaults on 16-year-old Rinelle Harper and a 23-year-old woman in Winnipeg.

Police have said Rinelle was out with friends celebrating the completion of her midterms the night of Nov. 7 when she became separated from them. Police say she struck up a conversation with two males and the trio walked to the Assiniboine River.

There, police say, Rinelle was attacked and ended up in the frigid water. She managed to crawl out upstream, but was attacked again and "left for dead." Police allege the same pair beat and sexually assaulted another woman a short time later before leaving her unconscious.

Rinelle was found, struggling to breathe, by two construction workers early the next morning. She was rushed to hospital in critical condition but has since been released. Her family has said she doesn't remember anything about the assault and is eager to return to school.

Rinelle is from the northern reserve of Garden Hill, but was studying at a boarding school for aboriginal students in Winnipeg. Her family agreed to release her name to humanize her and help generate tips for police investigators.

The attack, coming after the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was found in the Red River last summer, prompted aboriginal leaders to call yet again for an end to violence against women.

The Crown's request means the youth will get a preliminary hearing and will be tried in Court of Queen's Bench instead of in youth court, Mariash said. His case could be heard by a judge alone or by a jury.

The youth was remanded in custody until his next court date in January. Hudson is due to appear in court Friday.