A central Indiana teenager who insisted for weeks that he hadn't intended to kill a former classmate admitted in court Monday that he had hoped the shots he fired would be fatal, bringing an unexpectedly fast end to his trial.
Sixteen-year-old Michael Phelps softly answered "Yes, sir," when defense attorney Steven Litz asked him if he had intended to kill 15-year-old Chance Jackson in the March 25 shooting at Martinsville West Middle School. A few moments later, prosecutors dropped all charges but attempted murder, the one count on which Morgan Superior Court Judge G. Thomas Gray found Phelps guilty. The trial lasted 15 minutes.
"This was essentially a de facto guilty plea," Litz told reporters later.
Litz said that by not formally pleading guilty, Phelps reserves the right to appeal the decision to try him as an adult, as well as whatever sentence he receives at a hearing set for Aug. 12.
Reporters and spectators gathered in the second-story courtroom in downtown Martinsville expecting a five-day trial. The first hint that things might not go as expected came when both sides waived opening arguments and Prosecutor Steve Sonnega called Jackson as his only witness.
The soft-spoken teen, who wore a white dress shirt, said Phelps confronted him just inside a school entrance and asked him why he'd been avoiding him and if he wanted to fight, then pulled out a gun and shot him twice in the abdomen.
The prosecution then rested, and Litz called his only witness, Phelps, who made his on-stand admission.
Sonnega then dropped five of the six counts against Phelps, leaving only the attempted murder charge, and Gray found him guilty. Phelps had waived his right to a jury trial July 1 when several jurors in Clay County _ where they were selected due to publicity in the Indianapolis media market _ said they believed Phelps was guilty.
Litz, who had steadfastly maintained that Phelps hadn't meant to kill Jackson, wouldn't say what had happened to change the situation. After conferring with the judge and prosecutors, officials decided the quick trial was the best option.
Sonnega said prosecutors had built a strong case through witness interviews and that it had become apparent that the school shooting was a call for attention more than a violent grudge as investigators first thought.
"It really turned that it wasn't about Chance, it was about the sensationalism of a school shooting," Sonnega said. "Chance was just a target of opportunity."
Authorities said Phelps posted "today is the day" on his Facebook page shortly before the shooting, and Sonnega said that fits with the new theory. Investigators had previously said there was bad blood between Chance and Phelps.
The attorney representing Jackson's family said they were satisfied with the outcome.
"We are very happy with what occurred here today," attorney Catherine Michael said.
Jackson was shot twice in the abdomen with a 9mm handgun, suffering wounds to several organs. He spent a month in the hospital, but was well enough to pay a visit to the school May 9.
Phelps could face 20 to 50 years in prison when he is sentenced next month. Sonnega said he would review sentencing laws before deciding how long a sentence to seek, noting Phelps' age. Litz said he would argue for a light sentence.
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com