BENTON, Ky. (AP) — The 15-year-old accused of killing two classmates with a handgun in a school shooting that left 18 others bleeding and broken was ordered held Thursday on preliminary charges of murder and assault.
The juvenile court judge found probable cause to keep detaining the teenager as authorities gather evidence to support trying him as an adult for the attack at Marshall County High School, Assistant Marshall County Attorney Jason Darnall said.
And while the legal process began for the suspect, others in the small rural community sought to show solidarity with the victims.
Nearly 300 people, many faces visibly etched with pain, thronged a park Thursday evening and lit flickering candles for the victims. "It always happens somewhere else, you know, but this week it was our community," said Misti Drew, an organizer of the vigil. With faces aglow from the candles, participants lofted banners and some wore T-shirts embossed with the words, "Marshall Strong."
Earlier, Vicki Jo Reed painted a "Marshall Strong" sign on a storefront, and reflected on her grandson's close call.
"This is one of the hardest things for me to ever have to paint," she said. "Had a grandson that was in the commons area through the whole thing, and he, like all the other kids, is not handling it very good."
Reed said her grandson is also 15, like the shooting suspect and their two slain classmates, and is haunted by the horror he saw.
"He wakes up to the gunshots every morning," Reed said.
The mother of Bailey Nicole Holt, who died at the scene, said she got a call from her daughter's phone, but couldn't hear her.
"She called me and all I could hear was voices and chaos in the background and she couldn't say anything," Secret Holt told WKRN-TV in Nashville. "I called her name over and over and she never responded, so we rushed to the high school and they wouldn't let us get through."
Authorities are gathering evidence for a grand jury, hoping to discover why the suspect fired into a crowd of his classmates, all 14 to 18, as they waited for the morning bell.
Thursday's closed-door hearing began a journey through the criminal justice system that is slightly more complicated than it would be if the suspect were an adult charged with the same crimes. After an initial series of hearings in juvenile court, which is closed to the public and the records sealed under Kentucky law, the case will be presented to a grand jury that next meets on Feb. 13.
If the grand jury returns an indictment, the case will move to circuit court, at which point the prosecution would proceed like an ordinary criminal trial. But the boy will have some protections: the law requires that he remain at a juvenile jail, not in the general population of a county facility. And if he's found guilty at trial, he will not face the state's most severe sentences.
Kentucky juries can typically recommend a range of sentences, up to death, for adults convicted of murder.
But the U.S. Supreme Court has barred states from sentencing juveniles to death or to life without parole, finding that children should be treated differently because their still-developing brains leave young people prone to poor judgment.
And Kentucky has been through this before, when a teenager convicted in a school shooting that drew national attenion more than two decades ago was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years.
Michael Carneal was 14 in 1997 when he killed three students and injured five at Heath High School in Paducah, not far from Marshall County. Convicted and sentenced in 2001, he's now 34 and eligible for parole in four years, according to state records.
Damon Preston, the state's public advocate, said the law remains unsettled on whether the Supreme Court's 2012 decision abolishing juvenile life without parole should also extend to life without the possibility of parole for 25 years.
Whatever the sentence, a convicted juvenile in Kentucky will remain until his 18th birthday in a juvenile detention center, where the law requires that he get an education and be spared punitive measures like solitary confinement, said Acena Beck, the executive director of the state's Children's Law Center.
Once 18, a convicted juvenile goes back before a judge, who can then decide whether or not to formally impose the trial jury's sentence and send the offender to an adult prison.
There was some positive news Thursday, as two more patients were released from Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, and both remaining boys were in stable condition, spokeswoman Kristin Smart said Thursday.
Schreiner reported from Frankfort, Kentucky. Galofaro reported from Louisville, Kentucky.