CHARDON, Ohio - An attorney for a teenager who pleaded guilty to killing three students in an Ohio high school cafeteria asked an appeals court Wednesday to toss out his sentence of life without parole because he was 17 at the time of the shooting.
T.J. Lane's attorney is challenging a state law that allowed his case to be transferred from juvenile court to adult court, a statute also being challenged in an unrelated case pending before the Ohio Supreme Court involving a 16-year-old sent to prison.
A prosecutor on Wednesday told the judges that Ohio law makes it clear that older teens charged with serious crimes should be tried in adult court.
The law requires the transfer to adult court if a juvenile suspect is 16 or 17, accused of one of the most severe offenses, and there is probable cause to believe he or she committed the crime.
Lane was waiting for a bus to his alternative school in February 2012 when he opened fire at Chardon High School, east of Cleveland. Three students died and three others were wounded.
The hearing took place inside a courtroom where a smirking Lane wore a T-shirt with "killer" scrawled across it and gestured obscenely toward the victims' families during his sentencing. He wasn't present for the hearing Wednesday.
Lane, 19, could be brought back to the same court if the courts decide he should be resentenced. Because he was a juvenile, he is ineligible for the death penalty.
Lane's attorney, Michael Partlow, argued that juvenile judges have more leeway with younger teens. "What is the difference between a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old? He is still not an adult," Partlow said.
Geauga County Prosecutor James Flaiz countered that several rulings have upheld the state law allowing juveniles to be sent to adult court. He said the law is intended so that a 17-year-old can't shoot someone in the head and be set free when he turns 21.
The Office of the Ohio Public Defender is aware of four people in Ohio, including Lane, serving life without parole for slayings that occurred when they were juveniles, assistant public defender Stephen Hardwick said.
As of 2012, there were about 2,500 people in the U.S. serving life sentences for homicides that occurred when they were juveniles, but the current number is difficult to track because a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that year raised the possibility that hundreds of those sentences may be called into question, said Marsha Levick, chief counsel for the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Juvenile Law Center.
Giving juveniles life terms without parole "means that we're making these decisions on day one of sentencing about who Lane or any other juvenile will be 30, 40, 50 years from now," Levick said. "And it's almost impossible to make that decision or to know who he will become as an adult."