Nearly two years in the waiting, attorneys finally began on Monday presenting evidence to determine whether accused Freeman High School shooter Caleb Sharpe will be tried for murder as a juvenile or an adult.
In a packed courtroom, the gallery included Sharpe’s parents on one side and Amy Strahan, the mother of slain 15-year-old Freeman sophomore Sam Strahan, on the other.
Sharpe, 17, faces one count of first-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder and 51 counts of second-degree assault. The attempted murder and assault charges pertain to three students who were wounded and other students prosecutors argue were in danger of being hit by bullets.
Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Kelly Fitzgerald said Sharpe had planned his attack for months. A week prior to the shooting, Sharpe gave notes to two fellow students saying he would soon be in jail or dead, and he also made sure his bus driver knew that he would be bringing a golf bag to school.
On the morning of Sept. 13, 2017, Fitzgerald said, Sharpe packed his father’s AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and “over 20 boxes” of ammunition in that golf bag to “get into the school undetected.”
“He shaved his head, got dressed and put a handgun inside his coat,” Fitzgerald said. “He drew a map of where he wanted to go.”
Sharpe targeted the second floor of Freeman High School because he knew that’s where most of the students would be at that time of the morning “to maximize the number of casualties,” Fitzgerald said. “He committed a mass shooting.”
Soon after arriving at school, he pulled out the AR-15, but it jammed. He grabbed the handgun and shot Strahan once in the stomach and the face, she said. The shooter also fired bullets that wounded three girls. Sharpe later confessed to the shooting and gave intricate detail to detectives about how he carried it out.
“The issue here today is where accountability will take place,” Fitzgerald said.
Attorneys are presenting evidence to Superior Court Judge Michael Price in what’s called a declination hearing. Price will determine whether Sharpe, who was 15 at the time of the shooting, will be tried as a juvenile or “declined” to adult court.
The hearing has finally begun after a series of delays. Testimony was canceled for Tuesday but will start again Wednesday, and the attorneys are not expected to give closing arguments until next week.
If the case remains in Spokane County Juvenile Court and Sharpe is convicted, he would be released at age 21. If he is tried as an adult, he is facing up to life in prison.
His attorney, Bevan Maxey, argued his client suffered a medical incident at birth, called perinatal hypoxia, which is a lack of oxygen to the brain that caused damage.
Maxey is expected to bring two experts who believe that the brain damage caused personality disorders or brain abnormalities that may have contributed to Sharpe’s actions.
“The charges are serious. No one is disputing that,” Maxey told Judge Price. “But there is much more for you to consider than just the seriousness of the crime. Neither this juvenile nor the public will be better served by transferring this case to adult court.”
Maxey argued the case should not be about retribution for a day that forever changed Freeman and schools in the surrounding area.
“Caleb Sharpe was not a normal 15-year-old. He was even less mature and a victim of forces that he could not control,” Maxey said. “We tried diligently to find the best experts who could … speak about his level of maturity and sophistication.”
As for the notes he provided other students about a week before the shootings, Maxey said school officials pulled Sharpe out of school and he was sent to see a counselor for a very brief examination.
But school officials allowed Sharpe to return to school even before they got the report back from the counselor, Maxey said.
“There were a number of failures on a number of levels, and unfortunately, he was allowed to go back to school,” Maxey said.
Fitzgerald countered that Sharpe “lied to the counselor and his parents about whether the note was about suicide,” she said. “He had a plan. He described approaching it like it was a military operation.”
She noted that if Sharpe is convicted in adult court, he would remain in a juvenile facility until he turns 25. He would then be sent to adult prison.
“We will be asking you to allow the system to work as is it should,” Fitzgerald told Price.
For his part, Maxey said his client already has obtained his GED certificate and is pursuing college courses during the two years he has remained behind bars.
“We believe the evidence will show at the conclusion of this that the improvements he has made show that rehabilitation can occur,” Maxey said. And the declination to adult court “in this particular matter is not warranted.”
As part of the case Monday, Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell called Sharpe’s bus driver, Charisma “Chari” Conklin, to the stand.
She narrated a series of videos captured by her bus that recorded conversations and interactions she had with Sharpe, who told her on Sept. 5, 2017, that he would be bringing a golf bag on the bus to school.
“A lot of us know a lot of the kids,” Conklin said. “It’s just a big family.”
On the day of the shooting, the camera captured young elementary students laughing and even hugging each other as kids filed onto the bus. In the window, the camera caught images of the stocking-hat wearing Sharpe loading what prosecutors believe was the gun-laden golf bag under the bus.
When the bus arrived at Freeman High School, Sharpe shuffled past Conklin and the video showed him speaking.
“I believe it was: ‘Have a good day,’ ” Conklin said of Sharpe’s comment. “I said the same to him.”
Minutes later, the video showed an empty bus with Conklin sweeping between the seats. In the background, the audio picked up the sirens loudly announcing that the school had been placed in lockdown because of an active shooter.
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