BY KEN LITTLE
Greene County Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr. will reserve decision until Thursday on whether a 17-year-old former South Greene High School student who allegedly stabbed a fellow student multiple times last September will be prosecuted as an adult on an attempted murder charge.
Closing arguments Tuesday at the transfer hearing by Assistant Public Defender Anita Leger and Assistant District Attorney General Cecil Mills Jr. capped nearly eight hours of testimony by classmates of the students involved, school employees, counselors and an expert medical witness who assessed the teenager several months after the stabbing.
Bailey also viewed school videotapes of the knife attack and its aftermath, and a taped interview of the defendant by detectives.
The stabbing victim, 15-year-old Daniel A. Birchfield Jr., recovered from three stab wounds and returned to school.
The 16-year-old who allegedly stabbed him has since turned 17. The teenager has been held in a juvenile detention facility in Johnson City since the Sept. 24, 2013, incident.
"It's a difficult case for both sides," Bailey said. "The facts of this case are difficult."
JUVENILE VS. ADULT SYSTEM
If Bailey decides to keep the teenager in the juvenile justice system, he will be released when he turns 19.
A conviction in adult court on attempted first-degree murder could mean a state prison sentence of 15 to 25 years at 30 percent release eligibility, or, in effect, more than four-to-seven years.
Based on the psychiatric history of the teenager charged in the stabbing, defense attorney Leger argued that the boy should have been receiving treatment in a hospital setting.
"Had the proper system been in place when this occurred, this young man would have been hospitalized," she said.
Putting the defendant in prison, she said, offers no opportunity for rehabilitation.
"As an adult, the only thing that is available is a six-by-six cell with a mattress and a cheese sandwich at lunch," Leger said. "To put (him) in an adult world in a point in time when his life is in crisis feels to me unjust."
Mills pointed out the serious nature of the crime, while acknowledging the age of the defendant.
"This was a clear attempt to murder somebody. It wasn't an assault that this person would spend two years (in custody) and be released," Mills said.
Bailey asked Leger what ripple effect there might be by keeping the teenager in the juvenile justice system rather than prosecuting him as an adult.
"What message does this send to other 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds who are contemplating school violence?" he said.
Mills admitted there are no rehabilitation programs for someone such as the defendant in the adult system.
"The only thing is: " 'I don't want to spend time in jail ever again,'" Mills told Bailey.
SENDING A 'MESSAGE'
Mills told Bailey he was troubled about the idea of releasing a defendant charged with attempted murder after only two years of supervision.
"I'm concerned about the message we send as a system, not just the juvenile system and not just the adult system," Mills said.
Evidence shows the teenager and victim had an ongoing disagreement over a girl, and the defendant used a kitchen knife to stab the student three times, including twice in the back.
A female student intervened during the stabbing and helped subdue the teenager until school staff got there.
"This is a case where one back is turned and the other kid is running and (the defendant) has got a girl on his back and he's still going after him," Mills said.
A South Greene High School student who was a friend of both the victim and the defendant testified Tuesday that the defendant texted her a disturbing message on the school bus before the stabbing occurred.
Bad feelings between the two boys over the girl had deeply angered the defendant, who was particularly upset about her wearing the victim's jacket, testimony showed.
"He was really upset about what happened," she said. "He just told me that he was fed up and something was going to happen that day."
The teenager wouldn't say what he planned to do, she testified.
"I tried to tell him not to do anything stupid," she said. "He said, 'People were going to be paying.'"
After entering the school cafeteria, the girl warned the other boy. The defendant sat alone at a circular table behind the victim, who sat with several other friends.
The girl started crying as she described the defendant's actions.
"He jumped up and stabbed him with a knife," she said. "He stabbed him in the back again."
At that point, another girl sitting at the table jumped on the teenager and tried to get the knife out of his hand, she said. School employees arrived moments later and wrestled the defendant to the ground.
Another student who was a friend to both boys testified that the defendant became upset several days prior to the incident when he saw the girl wearing the victim's jacket.
The teenager told the girl, "I swear I'm going to kill him," she testified.
The girl testified that the morning of the stabbing, she saw the defendant sitting alone at the cafeteria table eyeing the victim with a "creepy look."
Dr. Cindy Bowman, school principal, testified that the defendant was subject to discipline once in the past year, for cursing and showing "disrespect" in the classroom.
Bowman said the teenager had previously come to the principal's office and said he was depressed, and he was referred to a school counselor.
Sheriff's Detective Sgt. Mike Fincher, lead investigator in the case, said after he arrived at the school after the stabbing, he was able to speak briefly with the victim, who identified the defendant as the person who stabbed him.
Fincher later obtained a copy of school security videotapes of the cafeteria and hallway outside the entrance.
The cafeteria video shows the defendant sitting alone at the table for several minutes, appearing to stare intently at the victim, whose back was turned to him.
The teenager then stood up, walked toward the nearby table and is seen stabbing the victim, who ran out of the cafeteria and collapsed in the hallway.
Fincher recovered the knife used in the attack and began interviewing witnesses.
The defendant was taken to the Greene County Detention Center workhouse, where he was interviewed by Fincher and another detective.
"You have tears in your eyes. I can tell you have a lot on your mind," Fincher told the teenager in the interview.
The defendant responded there had been a "back and forth" between him and the victim for several weeks.
The teenager admitted to stabbing the victim in the interview.
"My feelings got in the way of my judgment over everything," he said.
The teenager gave detectives permission to pull information from his cell phone and Facebook page.
The teenager, wearing a white dress shirt, dark tie and dress pants in court, turned his eyes away when the stabbing was shown on videotape in the courtroom Tuesday.
Karen Malone, a crisis therapist at Frontier Health, testified that before the stabbing, the defendant spent some time in Woodridge Hospital in Johnson City after threatening harm to a family member and himself.
Scott Hollenbeck, a Frontier Health counselor who treats children and adolescents with emotional disturbances or mental illness, had several sessions with the defendant after his hospitalization.
The teenager eventually discontinued treatment, Hollenbeck said.
The teenager had a form of depression, he said.
Hollenbeck said that insufficient insurance coverage may have prevented any in-house treatment for the teenager.
Dt. Thomas E. Schacht, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the James H. Quillen College of Medicine, East Tennessee State University, interviewed the defendant in November in the juvenile facility where he is being held.
Schacht testified as an expert witness for the defense. In addition to interviewing the teenager, he reviewed his medical records and conducted some psychological testing.
Schacht testified that he found it was unlikely the teenager was malingering, or faking, a mental health condition.
The teenager was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in connection with an earlier stabbing incident he said he witnessed, and told the doctor he "heard voices."
Schacht said the teenager has recurring episodes of depression.
Schacht found that the teenager poses a "substantial likelihood" of causing serious harm to himself or others.
The defendant told him his "anger and his feelings are getting in the way of everything," Schacht said.
Given his mental health history, "a controlled environment" would be best for the defendant, Schacht told Leger.
The teenager's mother and stepfather were in the courtroom throughout the hearing.
Bailey said he needed some time to review psychiatric evaluations of the defendant and other medical records presented at Tuesday's hearing.
"There's some more records I want reviewed, and this is obviously a life-changing decision for (the 17-year-old)," he said.
"I don't think it would be fair if I issued a ruling today."