By MARGIE NETZEL - firstname.lastname@example.org
Convicted murderer Thomas “T.J.” Lane III’s obscene courtroom show to the families of his three victims grabbed headlines locally and nationally on Tuesday, raising the question — why was the teenaged school shooter allowed to make this final, defiant display?
Lane used his sentencing in Judge David L. Fuhry’s Geauga County courtroom as an opportunity to invoke obscene gestures and speak to his victims’ families after he casually unbuttoned his dress shirt to reveal an undershirt with the word “killer” written across it in marker.
The court’s bailiff told members of the press Fuhry did not see the shirt in the packed courtroom and would have immediately stopped the proceedings and made Lane put his dress shirt back on.
Lane walked into Chardon High School on Feb. 27, 2012 carrying a .22 caliber handgun. He unleashed a spray of bullets, ultimately killing 16-year-old Daniel Parmertor, Russell King, Jr., 17, and Demetrius Hewlin and injuring Nick Walczak, 17, Joy Rickers, 18, and Nate Mueller.
Ashtabula County Sheriff William Johnson said courtroom and jail protocol differs from county to county, but had Lane been in an Ashtabula County courtroom, he wouldn’t have been able to take off his clothes.
“I’m not sure what the policies are in other counties, but in Ashtabula County, if they are coming from the jail to a sentencing — meaning that they have already been convicted — we take them into the courtroom cuffed and in shackles and wearing a jail jumpsuit.”
During a criminal trial, a defendant wears civilian clothing and walks into the courtroom uncuffed, Johnson said.
“Once they are convicted, it is a totally different scene,” he said. “A jail uniform and handcuffs would have prevented this from happening.”
Recently appointed Western County Court Judge David Schroeder said he understands Fuhry’s allowances to Lane.
“In a case like that, the court needs to be very vigilant that the defendant, who is essentially, appearing in court for the last time ever, is given every opportunity to legitimately express himself before the court,” Schroeder said. “I would surmise that judge was probably being as open he could be to avoid an appellate issue. In high-profile cases such as murders, as a judge, you err on the side of caution. In a murder case, everything is closely, closely scrutinized.”
“The judge was right to give (Lane) his last day in court and the ability to express himself,” he said. “Otherwise it could become an issue on appeal.”
Schroeder said defendants who appear in court for trial or legal proceedings have the right to wear civilian clothing, so as not to appear incarcerated.
“There are no ‘hard and fast’ rules,” he said. “The defendant usually has to sign papers, and it is difficult to do that handcuffed. (Lane) wasn’t presenting a physical threat, not with that may deputies present.”
Though Lane was 17 years old at time of the shooting, he was tried as an adult, but state law prevents an underage defendant from facing the death penalty. Lane was convicted of three counts of aggravated murder, two counts of attempted aggravated murder and felonious assault and will spend the rest of his life in prison. State law also gives him an automatic appeal.
Johnson said while there was little deputies in the courtroom could have done to keep Lane quiet, he is surprised they let him take off his shirt.
“I was shocked that they allowed him to take his shirt completely off. We would have stopped it if it had happened in one of our courtrooms,” he said. “The judge would have stopped it, I can pretty much bet on that.”
Johnson said whatever satisfaction Lane got from his courtroom outburst will quickly fade when he faces the reality of hard prison life.
“I guess (Lane) knew he was going away for life, so he probably felt like he didn’t have anything to lose,” Johnson said. “But a kid like that, he will have a tough time in prison. I’m not sure if he will be in solitary confinement, or what his prison situation will ultimately be, but I can say he will have a very hard time of it.”