NEWS- Self-incrimination: Sentence built on teen's 'confession'
When the father of the 15-year-old Albemarle High student convicted of conspiring to blow up two county schools first took his son in to talk to the police, he thought perhaps it was about a fight the boy had witnessed.
When police barred him and his wife from their son's questioning, he realized that the situation was more serious. "I said, 'I object to him being questioned without representation,'" recalls the parent. "The officer shouted, 'We're not here to play games''– and denied the parent's request.
"I've been kicking myself since," says the father ruefully, two days after his son was committed to the juvenile system April 12.
The case reached the public with a police news conference February 3 announcing that two high school students and a middle school student had plotted on an Internet chat room to blow up Albemarle and Western Albemarle high schools. A third teenager was arrested at Jack Jouett Middle School two weeks later. Police confiscated three computers and took two guns from a parent's locked gun safe, along with some firecrackers, a smoke bomb, and kitchen matches.
But that was not the evidence presented at the 15-year-old's trial, which was closed because of his 13-year-old co-conspirators.
"He was convicted on his own statement," says Bill Hicks, the 15-year-old's attorney. "There was absolutely no evidence [my client] had anything personally to do with the mention of any bomb and no physical evidence a bomb was about to be constructed."
A 16-year-old Western Albemarle student, who pleaded guilty to two felony charges March 8, posted comments on his Myspace.com site that led to the arrests and convictions of all four teens.
"It was a boy with a disturbing fascination with an idea more than a plot," says the 15-year-old's father.
The 16-year-old was scheduled for sentencing April 19– after the Hook's deadline.
The April 12 sentencing of the 15-year-old revealed some details about what led to the charges of conspiracy to blow up a schoolhouse and conspiracy to commit murder.
"We were just going to go to school and kill everybody we saw who wasn't our friends," Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Darby Lowe quotes the youth as telling police. And when police asked why, she says he answered, "for the pleasure" and "for the rush."
Psychiatrist Eileen Ryan, who evaluated the teen for the defense, claims the first comment was merely a description of the 16-year-old's plan, and the latter question was "phrased by police officers in ways that could be hypothetical."
In court, Lowe was buying none of that psycho-sympathetic explanation, asking Ryan why the boy confessed to his parents that he was going to kill everyone not his friend. "It was the quickest way to avoid crying if you're a 15-year-old," she explained.
"You're saying he confessed to avoid crying?" asked Lowe.
"I don't think he did confess," replied the psychiatrist, testifying that the 15-year-old was no risk to the community.
She cited his altruism, kindness, and generosity to the 16-year-old, an allegedly lonely boy not widely accepted by his peers. She noted that the 15-year-old Albemarle High student's cousin had committed suicide, which "touched him deeply" and made him more likely to befriend kids who seemed bullied.
And, she said, the Albemarle student "was unprepared to deal with someone like [the 16-year-old]."
"He's sort of like an Eddie Haskell," the 15-year-old's father describes the 16-year-old after the hearing. "Very polite, but we don't want you to hang out with him too much."
At the sentencing in a packed Juvenile and Domestic Relations courtroom, the father promised if allowed to come home, his son would be enrolled in the Einstein School, would receive counseling at least twice a week, and get 24-hour supervision in a "strict, loving" environment to set him on the right path to adulthood and responsible citizenship.
"I would beg for the court's mercy, compassion, and understanding," the father said.
"I'm sorry for everything I did," the shackled, tear-choked 15-year-old told Judge Susan Whitlock. "I'm ready to go home."
Lowe noted that had the boys carried out the alleged plot, there would have been a "tragedy unparalleled in this community," and she requested detention "to put him on the right path... and then he can be released to the community." She said his involvement in the plan was a "cry for help."
The boy's mother sobbed, "Oh, please," when Whitlock committed the teen to the juvenile system.
The judge noted that the 15-year-old was not the originator, but mentioned one of her concerns: "This is a copy-cat crime. The word 'Columbine' was used over and over." She asked for a review in 60 days, and the boy's attorney noted an appeal, which will be heard in circuit court.
The emotional sentencing was the latest drama in an increasingly strange case that started with a press conference, went to closed trials and a clampdown on information so tight that after the March 28 convictions, Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos refused to release any information about the hearing's outcome. He alluded to a "court order," leading many to believe a gag order was in place.
That a juvenile can be interrogated by the police despite his parents' request for an attorney has surprised many– particularly the parents who voluntarily took him in for questioning.
"The way it was explained to me is since I brought him in [to the police station], I'd okay'd him talking," says the 15-year-old's father. He says he was told his son would have to ask for a lawyer himself.
"They said he was there voluntarily, and they didn't have to read him his rights because I brought him in," says the 15-year-old's father. "They said I couldn't ask for a lawyer for him. It seems like circular logic to me."
"There is no per se rule that a parent may invoke a child's right to counsel," says Public Defender Jim Hingeley. "A parent's wishes may be considered, but are not controlling. This is common law."
Hingeley declined to comment specifically on this case– his office is representing the 16-year-old– but in general, he says, "That just goes to show you how important statements are to getting convictions."
Those statements have the dad reeling. "His interrogation was terrible," says the father. "He would have confessed to the Kennedy assassination."
The judge did not grant the defense motion to toss out the confession. Nor was she swayed by defense lawyer's corpus delecti argument that "You can't introduce a confession into court unless a crime was committed."
Albemarle Police spokesman Lieutenant John Teixeira declined to comment on the family's concerns about the manner in which the teenager's confession was obtained. "If that's their contention," he says, "they can take that up with the judicial system."
At press time, a date had not been set for the 15-year-old's appeal. As disappointed as his family was that the teen didn't get to come home, in a way, the father welcomes the appeal. "If they had deferred disposition and given him house arrest for 30 days, we'd have endured it, and I'd spend the rest of my life wishing I'd done something to prevent my son living as a felon," he says.
And though the four teens are convicted and detained, the buzz at Albemarle and Western Albemarle is that the schools are going to blow up April 20– the seventh anniversary of Columbine and the date the alleged local plot was going to take place.
Some students claim they're afraid and staying home that day. Some parents are taking their fears seriously; others suspect they're using the thwarted plot to play hooky.
April 20 allegedly is the date the convicted bomb plotters were going to blow up Albemarle (above) and Western Albemarle high schools– although what explosives they were going to use is still unclear.
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO