JOPLIN, Mo. - A seventh grader who opened fire at a middle school will be one of the youngest suspects ever tried as an adult in Missouri, resulting in a legal response that straddles two courts.
Thomas White is accused of taking an assault rifle to Joplin Memorial Middle School on Oct. 9 and pointing it at administrators, teachers and students before firing a shot into the ceiling.
He then allegedly repeatedly tried to shoot Principal Stephen Gilbreth as Gilbreth ushered him out of the school. Police said the rifle jammed because of the improper setting of an ammunition clip in the gun. No one was wounded.
White dressed in a trench coat, camouflage pants and a crudely fashioned mask the day of the incident. He allegedly had a pellet gun, a Marine Corps manual and a map of a Kansas park campground in his backpack, authorities have said.
At White's certification hearing in December, juvenile officer April Foulkes recommended he be tried as an adult because of the seriousness of his alleged offense and the threat it posed to the community.
White, now 14, is charged with first-degree assault, armed-criminal action and attempted escape. He is being held at the Jasper County Jail, awaiting a preliminary hearing. His bond is set at $250,000.
He is one of the youngest offenders ever to be certified as an adult in the state. Three St. Louis girls, two age 14 and one 13, were tried as adults in a 2004-2005 murder case.
Missouri enacted a new juvenile crime law in 1995. The state based its policies on a philosophy that young offenders were not fully developed criminals and could be changed, said Tom Breedlove, the Division of Youth Services deputy director.
Before 1995, an offender had to be 14 or older to be certified for trial as an adult. Like many other states, Missouri lowered the age to 12 for any felony and eliminated a minimum age for the most serious violent crimes.
Judges now must hold adult-certification hearings for any juvenile accused of murder, rape, sodomy, first-degree assault, first-degree robbery or drug trafficking, and for any young offender with two prior felonies. The judge is allowed to decide whether the case should remain in juvenile court.
In White's case, if he is convicted, he faces an approach to juvenile crime known as blended sentencing and a state program involving dual courts' jurisdiction.
Foulkes said if White were to be adjudicated as a juvenile, the court's options would be limited to placing him on probation or committing him to DYS.
Brent Buerck, senior program administrator with DYS, said young offenders sentenced under the dual-jurisdiction program can actually be kept up to the age of 21. The program first began in 1996 and saw its first releases in 1999.
"With the dual jurisdictions, 83 percent of the kids who have successfully completed the program are not in prison," Buerck said.