Calif teen set on fire says punishment shouldn't be too harsh

Sasha Fleischman, an 18-year-old who identifies as neither male or female, suffered second- and third-degree burns after a 16-year-old allegedly set Fleischman's clothing on fire on a public bus.

Doug Oakley/Bay Area News Group/AP
Students at Maybeck High School in Berkeley wear skirts on Nov. 8, to support 18-year-old classmate Sasha Fleischman, who was allegedly set on fire by 16-year-old Richard Thomas, who has been charged as an adult, while the two were riding an AC Transit bus in Oakland.

A Northern California teen who was set on fire on a bus in what authorities believe is a hate crime says the 16-year-old accused of the attack shouldn't be charged as an adult.

Sasha Fleischman spoke to reporters about the horrific ordeal after leaving a hospital in time for Thanksgiving, more than three weeks after suffering second- and third-degree burns when the teen's skirt was set on fire on an AC Transit bus in Oakland.

The legs of the 18-year-old high school senior, who doesn't identify as either male or female, are still heavily bandaged.

The lawyer for the suspect, Richard Thomas, 16, of Oakland, said it was just a prank that went wrong. But Fleischman said, "I think you should really know better than to light someone's clothing on fire.

"I think you should be able to realize that that's not just a funny prank," the teen said Thursday.

Prosecutors have charged Thomas as an adult with aggravated mayhem and felony assault, with hate crime enhancements. Police said Thomas told investigators he was homophobic.

But Fleischman said Thomas "probably didn't realize how big of a deal it was going to be, how harmful it would be."

"I don't want to be too harsh because people do dumb things, especially when they're teenagers. If I had my way, I'd have him tried as a juvenile," Fleischman said.

Thomas' lawyer, William DuBois, argued at a hearing earlier this week that his client should be charged as a juvenile. An Alameda County judge plans to issue a ruling on the matter Dec. 20.

The incident has drawn worldwide attention as Fleischman's family and friends helped raise tens of thousands of dollars to pay for medical bills. Several classmates wore skirts to school to condemn the attack.

Fleischman, who was released from the hospital Wednesday, said panic set in moments after feeling the flames.

"My first instinct was kind of dumb," Fleischman said. "I started waving it around trying to put it out with air, but that just fanned the flames and made it bigger.

"My second reaction, which is probably what saved my life, I went back to kindergarten class and 'stop, drop and roll,' so I just dropped on the floor and started rolling around," Fleischman said.

Other passengers also helped put out the flames. Fleischman's injuries required three surgeries and three weeks in the burn unit.

Despite it all, Fleischman intends to keep wearing skirts.

"I'm going to keep wearing the skirt. I'm not going to give it up," Fleischman said. "It's a big part of who I am, and I don't like pants."

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