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Justice – delayed

12-year-old’s adult sentencing leads to new law

Gingerich in 2011

What a stupid plan. Tragically stupid. In April 2010, three boys in Cromwell, a tiny town on the east side of Lake Wawasee, got together in a park and hatched a plot to run away to California, or maybe Arizona. The oldest of the three, a 15-year-old named Colt Lundy, said his stepfather would never let them get away with that. So, they somehow concluded, they would have to kill him.

Another 12-year-old boy served as the lookout as Lundy hoisted 12-year-old Paul Gingerich through a window at his home and handed him one of two handguns he’d taken from his stepfather. Then the two of them shot 49-year-old Phillip Danner to death.

There was never any question of their guilt. The 12-year-old lookout was dealt with in the juvenile system. Lundy, the 15-year-old, was waived to adult court, pleaded guilty and received a 25-year sentence. Indiana law allows courts to waive defendants as young as 10 into adult court.

Though his crime was horrible, there were aspects of Gingerich’s case that might have argued for keeping him in juvenile court as well. He seemed not even to quite understand what was going on.

“The question has always been whether he was legally competent,” said Kaarin Lueck, a Richmond attorney who writes the respected Indiana Juvenile Justice Blog.

Gingerich’s lawyers wanted to have him evaluated and to offer the court choices for dealing with such a serious offender within the juvenile system. But when Kosciusko Superior Court Judge Duane G. Huffer scheduled Gingerich’s hearing, he left the lawyers with only four working days – not nearly enough time to arrange for witnesses or expert examination of the young defendant. The proceedings ended with Gingerich in adult court, pleading guilty and facing a 25-year prison sentence with no special provision for a 5-foot, 2-inch, 80-pound sixth-grader.

Indiana Department of Corrections officials knew he wouldn’t survive in a general prison population. They placed him in the Pendleton Juvenile Facility, where he could be among other youthful offenders and receive schooling, though those advocating for Gingerich knew that he could be transferred to an adult prison at any time.

Late last year, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that there had been, in effect, a rush to judgment. It threw out Gingerich’s guilty plea and the legal process started all over again.

Meanwhile, the Indiana Legislature passed a law aimed directly at the problem presented by Gingerich’s case. The measure allows adult courts to pronounce a “blended sentence” on a youthful offender like Gingerich whose crimes may be beyond the scope of juvenile court.

Monday, Gingerich agreed to have his case waived to adult court and again pleaded guilty. This time, although Gingerich will still face court supervision for 25 years, the court will have the option of keeping Gingerich in Pendleton and allowing him to pursue his education. He will be re-evaluated periodically and might end up in a group home, in community corrections, or even on probation if his behavior and rehabilitation continue apace.

“His case sparked the writing of the law,” the author of the new law, Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville, said. “If you’re going to place someone in a prison, eventually you’re going to have to let them out.” McNamara, director of the Early College High School in Evansville, says it’s clear that young offenders placed alongside adult prisoners will become hardened criminals by the time they’re released.

Now, judges have options to ensure that young defendants get counseling, treatment and educational opportunities, while the need to deliver sentences and give victims and their families a sense of justice can be met as well.

The bill took two years to get through the legislature, McNamara said, after a lot of advocacy on both sides. “It’s a huge change in the criminal justice system.”

A senseless, horrific crime initially brought a hasty and ill-considered judicial response. Now, all sides seem to agree that justice has been done. Score one for the Indiana Legislature and child advocates like Rep. McNamara.