WARSAW, Ind. — An Indiana teenager who was sentenced to 25 years and would have served some time in adult prison after pleading guilty at age 12 to helping kill a friend's stepfather could leave a juvenile prison as early as next summer under a deal with prosecutors.
Fifteen-year-old Paul Gingerich had successfully appealed his case being waived to adult court. He agreed Monday to plead guilty to the same conspiracy to commit murder charge he did three years ago and to receive the same 25-year sentence, only under a starkly different state law.
The new deal calls for a 30-year sentence with five years suspended, meaning he'll remain under state supervision for 25 years. Where he spends those years will depend on how he behaves. He could serve that time in a maximum-security facility if he gets in trouble, or in a group home, community corrections, on probation or even on parole if he's well-behaved.
"He committed a serious crime. But to send him to adult prison would guarantee we will create a criminal," said his attorney, Monica Foster.
The law does allow a judge to drop all supervision, but Foster told Judge James Heuer that the plea agreement doesn't allow for that for Gingerich.
The case involves the fatal shooting of 49-year-old Phillip Danner on April 20, 2010, in his home near Lake Wawasee, about halfway between Fort Wayne and South Bend. Danner's 15-year-old son pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder in September 2010 in exchange for prosecutors dropping charges of murder and aiding murder. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Authorities said the pair and another boy who served as lookout conspired for more than a month to kill Danner so they could run away to Arizona. Danner's death was discovered after officers checking reports of a suspicious vehicle stopped the three at a Wal-Mart store in Peru, Ill., and called authorities in Kosciusko County to ask them to check on Danner.
Gingerich, who was a sixth-grader at Wawassee Middle School at the time of the shooting, pleaded guilty in November 2010 to conspiracy to commit murder. The new plea agreement was worked out after the Indiana Court of Appeals last year threw out Gingerich's guilty plea and sentence, saying Kosciusko County Superior Judge Duane Huffer rushed when he waived the case to adult court.
A new law that went into effect July 1 allows a judge to sentence a juvenile to serve time in the Indiana Department of Correction's youth services division and allows the judge to review the case for a possible sentencing modification before the defendant turns 19.
"It applies very well in this case," Prosecutor Daniel Hampton said.
Hampton said he had talked with Danner's family and they approved of the new deal. Five members of the Danner family were in court for Monday's hearing, but they left without comment. Gingerich's parents also attended and declined to comment afterward.
Gingerich, who wore a green short-sleeve shirt, tan pants and white sneakers, repeatedly answered, 'Yes, your honor," when Judge James Heuer asked whether he understood his rights and what was going on. Sentencing is set for Dec. 16.
"You understand you could serve the full sentence?" Heuer asked.
"Yes your honor," Gingerich replied.
Foster told Heuer that Gingerich has been a model prisoner and plans to try to earn a college degree. She believes he will be moved to a group home this summer after he receives his high school diploma. How much freedom he has will depend on the group home he is assigned, she said, but she expects him to be given more and more freedom over time.
The law calls for a judge to hold a hearing as soon as possible after Gingerich turns 18 to determine where he should be placed based on the rehabilitative programs he has completed and how he has behaved.
Foster said the new law has worked well for Gingerich but that some defense attorneys fear it could lead to more youths being waived to adult court.