COLUMBIA, S.C. — A South Carolina school shooting will soon become a test case for court rulings that restrict life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, after a 16-year-old pleaded guilty to two counts of murder.
Jesse Osborne pleaded guilty earlier this month to two charges of murder for fatally shooting his father in their home and a 6-year-old boy at the South Carolina elementary school Osborne once attended.
Prosecutors said they would seek a life sentence without parole. Osborne faces a minimum of 30 years.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected mandatory life without parole for juveniles in 2012. However, life without parole is still allowed as an option for juveniles.
Osborne and his lawyers said little at his plea hearing. But defense attorney Frank Eppes promised to fight to ensure the teen, who had turned 14 just 20 days before the September 2016 killings, leaves prison someday.
WHAT WILL THE HEARING BE LIKE?
The court rulings named five factors a judge must weigh before deciding if someone who was 17 or younger when they committed a murder should never leave prison.
Judge Lawton McIntosh will have to consider Osborne’s age and maturity at the time of the crime; his family and home environment; the circumstances of the crime; whether he knew his rights and could deal with police and prosecutors; and the possibility of rehabilitation, according to the courts.
THE PROSECUTION’S CASE
Based on the evidence presented during the Dec. 12 guilty plea hearing and a February hearing that determined Osborne would be tried as an adult, Solicitor David Wagner will emphasize the horror of Osborne’s crimes.
The teen walked behind his father and shot him three times in the head before stealing his dad’s pickup and driving it to Townville Elementary School, said Wagner.
Wagner also emphasized Osborne’s messages to a private Instagram group that he called a “sleeper cell of would-be school shooters.” The messages said he chose the elementary school because it had no police officer on campus and police response time would be slower.
The judge will likely hear from mental health experts. Neuropsychologist Mark Wagner testified at Osborne’s hearing to determine if he should be tried as an adult that the teen “told me he enjoys thinking about killing other people.”
THE DEFENSE CASE
It’s a little less clear how Osborne and his lawyers might argue for leniency.
During the February hearing, they pointed out the teen loved his pets, even kissing them after he killed his father and headed to the school, because he wasn’t sure he would survive.
They also have characterized Osborne’s father as an angry man who belittled and tried to pick fights with Osborne and his mother when he was drunk.
Defense attorneys have also pointed out Osborne’s mother and lawyer were outside the sheriff’s office asking to see him while he was confessing to investigators the night of the shootings.
Eppes and Osborne said little at his plea hearing. Outside the courtroom, Eppes said Osborne is remorseful and knew he could spend the rest of his life in prison from the day of the killings.
“He is very guarded like all teenagers,” Eppes said. “He rarely talks about that day.”
An organization called Justice 360 opposes life sentences for juveniles. Executive Director Lindsey Vann said in most new murder cases involving juveniles since the court ruling, a hearing has been unnecessary because prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed on a sentence less than life that offers a chance of freedom.
The group also tracks re-sentencing for juveniles already serving life sentences, which was ordered under the 2014 South Carolina Supreme Court ruling. As of this past February, seven defendants have been resentenced, with just two of them ordered to keep serving life.
A date for Osborne’s hearing has not been set. Both sides suggested it would take through at least late spring to organize experts and other witnesses.