‘Not guilty’ verdict in bomber case
Jurors delivered a harsh rebuke tonight to prosecutors in the trial of a a 13-year-old alleged bombing conspirator who was supposedly part of a plot to murder students and reduce two local high schools to rubble.
The four women and eight men of the jury took four hours (including a delivered pizza dinner) to find that the former Jack Jouett Middle School student, convicted earlier this year in juvenile court, wasn't guilty of conspiring to kill schoolmates or destroy two Albemarle County high schools.
The case pitted law-and-order advocates against civil libertarians over the wisdom of vigorously prosecuting a boy whose parents contended that their little one was merely speaking unwisely.
"We really hope that the community and the young man can learn from his mistakes," said jury foreman Wesley Lewis, shortly after the 9:14pm verdict was announced. Lewis, a heating and air-conditioning contractor, said the jury found insufficient evidence to convict. Another juror, David Maupin, described the deliberations as "tough."
In this boy's conspiracy case (his name is being withheld by the Hook due to his age), the cinematic hallmarks of a conspiracy were missing. There was no computer evidence of plotting, no infiltration into the plot by a tipster, no surveillance audio or video, and no turn-coat plotter. The physical evidence was a few standard issue firecrackers and a pair of shotguns hauled from the locked gun case of another boy's father. And a rough drawing of a propane-tank an older boy sketched in the presence of investigators.
What there was was testimony. Six schoolmates said the 13-year-old either knew of a plot or warned about imminent bombs or shooting. But most of the teens who testified considered such talk a joke, and none revealed such statements about this boy until after the February 3 press conference at which local officials gave many citizens the impression that two schools narrowly averted a murderous calamity like the 1999 massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School.
In these cases, the students were largely trapped by their own admissions to investigators. And in this boy's juvenile trial back in April, the boy was actually accused at one point of threatening violence by pointing his index finger at his own head.
The boy's parents, with him at the front of the court when the verdict was read, leaned back in their chairs and let out audible signs of joy when the verdict was read. The boy clenched his hands into fists, but this time no one was accusing him of symbolizing violence. Defense attorney David Heilberg issued hugs.
Prosecutor Darby Lowe, who won an award several months ago from the Albemarle County Police Federation for her earlier prosecutions of the teens, declined comment on the verdict. But the boy's eldest brother, a realtor who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, had something to say. He was predicting victory while the jury was still deliberating.
"They were trying to scare us out of filing an appeal," said the brother. "They've been trying to work deals with us because they were afraid to go back to court because their case is weak."
"How can you tell your child to give up when you're not guilty?" the boy's father asked. "You stand up to it when you're right."
Although Albemarle County public schools start their fall session in five days, the parents are pessimistic that their son will be allowed in. His now-nullified conviction in juvenile court caused the Albemarle County School Board to issue a one-year suspension. While County schools attorney Mark Trank was present for much of the trial, he was not in court for the verdict. But the parents hoped he'd "do what's right," especially since private schools have shunned the boy they considered to be a danger.
The boy's brother, an Albemarle High School grad, said he and his friends used to talk as recklessly as his little brother. "If you grabbed a bunch of 13-year-olds and recorded everything they said," said the brother, "you'd have to haul half of them away."