INDIANAPOLIS — The case of an Indiana boy who was convicted as an adult at age 12 for helping kill a friend's stepfather is raising questions about whether young suspects can fully understand the consequences of their offenses.
Paul Henry Gingerich was one of three juveniles charged in the 2010 killing of 49-year-old Phillip Danner in northeast Indiana as part of a plot to run away to Arizona.
Gingerich, who fired one of the shots that hit Danner, was sentenced to 25 years in prison after signing an agreement to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. A 15-year-old co-defendant pleaded guilty as an adult to conspiracy to commit murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The other 12-year-old, who was present but didn't enter the house, was sentenced to juvenile detention until age 18.
Gingerich's attorney, Monica Foster, is challenging why her client was moved into adult court, saying a local court failed to consider the boy's maturity. She asked the Indiana Court of Appeals Tuesday to send the case back to juvenile court, saying a juvenile trial represented her client's best chance at rehabilitation.
"I just don't believe that any fair judge who listened to a fair hearing would waive this kid to adult court," she said.
Indiana's laws regarding adult sentencing of minors were written before scientists discovered that adolescents' brains don't fully develop until age 25, said Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council.
If the appellate court does order a fresh juvenile hearing, it will show that judges handling such cases involving young defendants should "slow down and make sure the child knows what is happening," he said.
But sending Gingerich back to juvenile court also could be a gamble for the boy, who is eligible for release when he's 24. There's no guarantee the case wouldn't be sent to adult court again, the judges noted Tuesday, and Gingerich could risk a longer prison sentence if he gets a new hearing and is charged again with murder as an adult.
"You may win the battle and lose the war," Judge John Baker told Foster.
Foster argued Tuesday that the local court rushed to judgment without considering Gingerich's maturity. Defense attorneys had complained that due process wasn't being followed and their requests for more time were repeatedly rejected, she said, even though a psychologist questioned whether Gingerich understood what was happening.
"He thought the judge's job was to convict him," she said.
Deputy Attorney General Angela Sanchez contended that the trial judge had no reason to question Gingerich's maturity level and noted that Indiana law allows children as young as 10 to be tried as adults.
Sanchez also argued that Gingerich, now 14, and his parents had signed a plea agreement in which he waived his right to appeal.
"That was after they were in adult court," Baker said, noting that the point is whether his case had belonged there.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that a juvenile can't be punished the same way as criminal adults without considering their age, and said that state and federal laws cannot automatically impose life sentences in murder. The ruling, however, doesn't apply in this case because though he was originally charged with murder, Gingerich was not convicted of that offense.
Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a statement issued after the hearing that the trial court and prosecutors followed Indiana law and didn't violate Gingerich's rights and that the plea agreement shouldn't be disturbed.
Gingerich's older sister and several other relatives who attended the hearing declined comment afterward.
There is no timetable for the judges to rule.