INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — An Indiana judge didn't take enough time when he rushed a 12-year-old boy accused of helping kill a friend's stepfather into adult court, an appeals court said Tuesday in throwing out the child's guilty plea and overturning his 25-year prison sentence.
The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that Paul Henry Gingerich had not received the due process to which he was entitled and ordered a new juvenile court hearing.
"The Constitution won today," Monica Foster, the public defender who handled Gingerich's appeal, said. "This is a 12-year-old kid who did not get the due-process protection of the U.S. Constitution."
Gingerich was one of three juveniles from a small town in northeastern Indiana charged with killing 49-year-old Phillip Danner as part of a plot to run away to Arizona in April 2010. Gingerich, who authorities say fired one of the shots that hit Danner, is serving a 25-year sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit murder.
The Indiana attorney general's office did not immediately say whether it would appeal Tuesday's decision to the state Supreme Court.
"Among the most disheartening cases seen in the criminal justice system are those involving young people charged with extremely violent crimes. For prosecutors and judges, these are among the most difficult cases as well in terms of balancing the rights of the juvenile with the safety of the community," Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a statement. "We will carefully review our options after consulting with the county prosecutor and conducting further research."
A Kosciusko County judge had ordered Gingerich to be tried as an adult after a two-hour hearing that was held a week after the boy's arrest. The boy's defense attorney had protested that they didn't have enough time to prepare for the hearing or to conduct a psychological examination.
Although it's possible Gingerich could receive a longer sentence as a result of the new hearing, Foster said she didn't believe any judge would hand one down given all the facts of the case and her client's success in the juvenile justice system. He's a straight-A student with no disciplinary problems who's participating fully in his rehabilitation program "with flying colors," she said.
"I just think he is the poster-child for successful juvenile rehabilitation," Foster said.
The court's ruling noted that Gingerich didn't understand the proceedings. The court cited a psychologist who found that the boy thought the judge was obligated to find him guilty, didn't understand plea bargaining, and didn't understand many of the words used by his lawyer.
The appellate court rejected the state's arguments that Gingerich had given up his right to appeal as part of the plea agreement and found that a probation officer had provided the trial judge misinformation about the availability of private detention facilities.
Still, going back to juvenile court could be a gamble for the boy, who is now 14 and is eligible for release when he's 24. There's no guarantee the case wouldn't be sent to adult court again, and Gingerich could risk a longer prison sentence if he is charged again with murder as an adult.
Police said Gingerich and a 15-year-old co-defendant shot and killed Danner on April 20, 2010, in his home near Lake Wawasee about midway between Fort Wayne and South Bend. Another 12-year-old boy allegedly served as a lookout. The boys met later and took off in a car belonging to the 15-year-old's mother, who was in Florida on vacation.
The three were caught early the next morning in Peru, Ill., when a store clerk became suspicious of them and alerted police. The boys were allegedly trying to convert coins into paper bills.
The 15-year-old pleaded guilty as an adult to conspiracy to commit murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The other 12-year-old, who was present but didn't enter the house, was sentenced to juvenile detention until age 18.