Ohio school shooting: State likely to seek adult trial for teen suspect

Suspect T.J. Lane appeared in juvenile court Tuesday, where the judge ordered him held in custody pending trial for Monday's school shooting in Chardon, Ohio. The state is one that routinely transfers minors to adult court.

Mark Duncan/AP
T.J. Lane, a suspect in Monday's shooting of five students at Chardon High School is taken into juvenile court by Geauga County deputies in Chardon, Ohio Tuesday. Three of the five students wounded in the attacks have since died.

T.J. Lane, the teenager held as a suspect in a fatal shooting outside a Cleveland-area high school on Monday, appeared in juvenile court Tuesday, where a judge determined that he will remain in custody pending trial. Whether the 17-year-old will face trial as a juvenile or an adult will be determined next month, but Ohio is a state where minors charged with serious crimes are routinely transferred to adult court.

Authorities say the suspect, whom they have not identified by name because he is a minor, shot five students, killing three, at Chardon High School early Monday morning before fleeing the building on foot. The identity of the suspect, a 17-year-old sophomore, was made public by students who recognized him and by his family, who released a public statement Monday night.

Speaking after the court hearing, county prosecutor David Joyce said T.J. selected his victims at random and has confessed to the shooting. "This is not about bullying," he said, refuting some news reports that the suspect may have been a victim of bullying in the past. "This is about someone who is not well." He said the likely charges will be three counts of aggravated murder, plus others, and that he expected to ask the juvenile court to allow T.J. be tried as an adult. In addition to carrying a .22-caliber pistol, T.J. also carried a knife into the school, the prosecution says.

All matters related to the legal proceedings would change if indeed T.J. Lane is tried as an adult. The most serious is sentencing: Juveniles in Ohio who commit serious crimes might serve sentences as short as five years; if tried as an adult, T.J. would probably face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

“There’s a big difference. He will be tried like any other adult defendant and sentenced like any other adult defendant,” says Douglas Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri School of Law.

The confidentiality that surrounds cases of juvenile defendants would also fall away, allowing media access to the trial and the public release of his name by authorities. Also, unlike in juvenile trials, a jury would decide the case, not a judge.

In 2010, Ohio transferred 303 juveniles, ages 14 to 20, to adult court, according to data from the Ohio Department of Youth Services. One hundred and fifty juveniles aged 17, the same age as T.J., represented half of those. The previous year, the state tried 310 juveniles as adults. Ohio is one of 15 states to mandate that juveniles charged with certain crimes, such as homicide, be tried as adults, says the American Civil Liberties Union, which gives the state a 'C-' rating as a result. The other 35 states leave such decisions to the judge's discretion. It is not yet determined if the charges expected to be filed against T.J. fall under that mandate.

On Wednesday, the juvenile court judge, Timothy Grendell, will consider requests from the media to make public any juvenile court records for T.J. and for one of the shooting victims. Juvenile court records are confidential and usually are not made public.

Judge Grendell ordered media not to take photographs or video images that show the faces of T.J. or his family. He also imposed a gag order on defense lawyers, at the prosecution's request, preventing T.J.'s attorneys from talking in public or to reporters about the case. T.J's detention order is for 15 days. Charges will be read at the next hearing on March 6. A probable cause hearing related to the prosecution's request to try T.J. as an adult is set for March 19.

T.J. did not attend Chardon High School, the scene of the crime located about 30 miles east of Cleveland, but instead was enrolled at Lake Academy in nearby Willoughby. The school serves at-risk students from Grades 7 to 12 from eight school districts in the area.

A website for the school says that it offers “an alternative education program … for students who are experiencing serious challenges in meeting expectations within traditional school settings” and that many of its students are considered “reluctant learners” who “may be struggling with a verity of individual problems, such as: substance abuse/chemical dependency, anger issues, mental health issues, truancy, delinquency, difficulties with attention/organization, and academic deficiencies.”

A spokesperson for the academy would not answer questions related to the incident, citing privacy concerns. Brian Bontempo, the school’s superintendent, said in a statement that the school is “fully cooperating with the ongoing investigation” and is providing counseling and intervention services to its students and staff.

The Chardon Public School District was closed Tuesday and will not reopen for classes until Friday. Grief counselors were available to the community at two schools Tuesday, and a candlelight vigil was scheduled Tuesday night at an area church. 

No motive for the shooting has been made public. Some students had said that T.J. may have been bullied, and a poem that appeared on his Facebook profile, which ended with the line, “Die, all of you,” added to the speculation. His Facebook page has since been taken down.

However, some information has emerged about T.J.'s rocky family life, which local students say he largely kept to himself.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that T.J. lived with his grandparents and appeared to have had a tumultuous childhood, witnessing acts of violent acts between his parents. Before he was two, his father and mother were both arrested for domestic violence against each other. T.J.'s father has a long record of arrests for violent crimes against women, including his wife, and served prison time for assaulting a police officer, the newspaper reported.

T.J.’s family released a statement through Robert Farnacci, a lawyer, to say they are devastated by the news and wished “to extend their heartfelt and sincere condolences” to the victims' families.

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