WARSAW, Ind. – A 15-year-old Indiana boy who told a judge he "made a really bad choice" was sentenced Monday to 30 years in prison after pleading guilty in his stepfather's shooting death.
Kosciusko Circuit Judge Rex Reed agreed to a plea deal in which the teenager agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit murder in exchange for prosecutors dropping charges of murder and aiding murder. Reed recommended that the last five years of the sentence be suspended while the boy is on parole.
"I hope I'm given the choice to prove I can do good things in my life still to come," the boy said. His eyes were filled with tears when he turned to look at his family before being led out of court.
At a hearing earlier this month, the boy testified that he and a 12-year-old friend decided during a meeting at a park to kill his 49-year-old stepfather. The plan was to kill Phillip Danner, then run away from home. The teenager said he opened a bedroom window to let his friend into the house near Lake Wawasee midway between Fort Wayne and South Bend.
They took two loaded guns from the bedroom, went into the living room and waited. The 15-year-old said he and his friend both shot Danner. Authorities have said Danner was shot once in the eye, once in the wrist and twice in the chest.
Reed told the boy that sentencing was difficult because he had to take into account the fact that Danner likely would have lived another 30 years, while also considering the boy's age.
"It is not going to be easy. I don't think it ought to be easy," Reed said. "I think it should be fair."
Reed said he tried to divide the stacks of letters he got from people interested in the case into a pile for those who wanted a stiff prison sentence and those who wanted leniency, but couldn't do so because it wasn't that clear cut.
He read a portion of a letter from Danner's sister, Kim Wilson.
"Our lives are changed forever. I am angry because he was taken from us and I don't know why," she wrote.
The boy's attorney, David Kolbe, told Reed that the teenager wasn't a psychopath or a sociopath, but someone who had done "a tremendous wrong." He also said the boy had lived in a "distressed environment."
"He has a conscience for what happened here. He has a tremendous amount of remorse," Kolbe said.
Prosecutor R. Steven Hearn said he had doubts about that, saying that after the shooting the boy had invited friends into the house to see what he had done.
"That showed he understood what he did and he wanted everyone else to know about it," Hearn said.
The boy read a statement, saying being in custody the past five months have given him time to think about what he did, and that "I know what I did was unacceptable."
He asked the judge to allow him to prove to people he's not the person they think he is.
"I'm not a bad person. I just made a really bad choice," he said. "No matter what people think about me right now, hopefully I can prove to them I'm a good person."
The boy's 12-year-old friend is scheduled to stand trial in February on charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Another 12-year-old boy was sentenced in May to remain in the juvenile detention center in South Bend until age 18 for his role in the killing. He had been charged as a juvenile with assisting a criminal.