The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

June 26, 2009

Joplin teen pleads guilty


By Derek Spellman

dspellman@joplinglobe.com

A Joplin teen who fired an assault rifle in Memorial Middle School and then aimed it at an administrator more than two years ago pleaded guilty to a pair of assault charges Friday.

Thomas White will be considered for the state’s dual jurisdiction program as part of a pending plea agreement with the Jasper County prosecutor. Also under the pending agreement, the 16-year-old White pleaded guilty to a companion charge of armed-criminal action, while two remaining felony charges would be dismissed.

Circuit Judge David Mouton on Friday said he would defer a final decision on the plea agreement until White’s sentencing hearing. White had previously been certified to stand trial as an adult.

White was charged with five felony counts after discharging an assault rifle inside Memorial Middle School on Oct. 9, 2006.

White, who was 13 at the time of the incident, is accused of firing the rifle once into the ceiling of a school hallway, pointing the weapon at an assistant superintendent and the school principal, and attempting to shoot the latter.

Police say the gun jammed after the firing of a single round into the ceiling because of an improperly seated ammunition clip. The school principal later ushered him out of the building.

White was to undergo a competency hearing Friday to explore whether he was mentally competent to assist in his own defense. A state psychiatrist evaluated White earlier this year and found him mentally incompetent to do so, prompting the Jasper County prosecutor to seek a second opinion.

But White, via his new defense attorney, Steven Hays, on Friday agreed that he had the capacity to understand the proceedings against him and assist in his own defense. He entered his guilty pleas shortly afterward while his mother, Norma White, looked on in the courtroom.

“I’m glad we are at this point,” she told reporters after the Friday hearing, saying she was relieved the case was nearing its end.

Her son is doing “a lot better,” she said, now that he is no longer in solitary confinement.

Norma White declined to comment further on the case, citing advice from Hays. After the hearing, Hays declined to comment.

Hays became White’s lone attorney Friday when White’s public defender, Brett Meeker, withdrew. Meeker told the court that she withdrew on the basis that White now had a private attorney. Mouton ruled Friday that White owes the state $32,000 for legal expenses and attorney fees it incurred during his defense.

White was charged with two counts of first-degree assault and single counts of armed-criminal action, discharging a firearm in a school building and attempted escape.

His proposed plea agreement offers the possibility of being sentenced under the state’s dual-jurisdiction program or receiving a prison sentence that would be no more than 15 years.

To be considered for the dual-jurisdiction program, the youth must be younger than 17. White will reach that age in December.

The state’s Division of Youth Services will assess whether White qualifies for dual jurisdiction, a program that enables juveniles to receive education, vocational training and various forms of counseling, all of which would not be available in adult prison. If they are able to complete the program successfully, the court may choose to release them on probation. If not, the court may order the adult prison sentence imposed.

Participating youths may not remain in the dual-jurisdiction program past their 21st birthday, according to the Division of Youth Services.



Sentencing

Thomas White is scheduled to be sentenced during a hearing that starts at 1 p.m. Sept. 4.