At his bench, Judge Robert Guess shook his head, removed his glasses and paused for a moment after watching videos of a Columbia teen firing rounds at targets the teen said represented black people.
“I hate black people,” the teen said in one video, played in a courtroom with many African-Americans in attendance as court workers. The small laptop speakers that played the video’s sound may have been soft, but everyone heard the teen’s recorded last words, “F--- all n------.”
The teen, his mother and father all bowed their heads, his parents weeping, while the video played.
The striking moment came Wednesday in Richland County family court where the 16-year-old, a former Cardinal Newman School student, was sentenced to a combination of jail time and probation after pleading guilty to second degree assault and unlawful communications at a previous hearing.
The video and a threat to “shoot up” the Columbia Catholic school generated fear and anger this summer among students, parents and others.
In July, a parent of another child found the video on their child’s phone. The parent reported the video to Cardinal Newman authorities, and the teen in the video was removed from school.
A couple days later, the same parent found a text exchange from May in which the teen in the video said he was on the way “to shoot up the school.” The texts included a picture of him walking along a wooded path and shooting in a pond.
The text exchange prompted the Richland County Sheriff’s Department to charge the teen with threatening school, and he spent two nights in jail before being put on strict house arrest with GPS monitoring, according to court testimony. He also was required to be home-schooled.
In August, the videos became public when another parent posted them on social media, the content causing outrage and fear among parents and students at Cardinal Newman, a private, Catholic school of roughly 500 students in northeast Columbia for students in grades 7-12.
In court, the teen, who The State is not naming because he is a juvenile, apologized for his actions, calling them “thoughtless, foolish” and “plain stupid.”
“When I think about the amount of people who have been hurt by my foolish actions, the Cardinal Newman community and the African-American community specifically at Cardinal Newman, I feel terribly sorry, guilty and disgust at what I have done and how that has affected others,” he said.
He apologized to all of those groups and any others harmed by his actions.
His father also gave emotional testimony, saying the videos were not reflective of the values he and the teen’s mom tried to instill.
Guess weighed the recommended sentences by the Department of Juvenile Justice and the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office. The juvenile justice department offered a lighter sentence for the judge to consider that included probation, counseling and certain restrictions while the prosecutor’s harsher sentenced called for jail time, longer probation and a ban on guns in the teen’s house.
The teen needed jail time “to really feel the sting and truly understand what happened in this case,” prosecutor Eden Hendricks said. “Normally we don’t ask for active time when someone has no prior record ... but considering the circumstances we do feel it’s appropriate.”
After watching the videos, Guess took the prosecutor’s recommendation for the harsher sentence.
The teen will serve five days in jail and 18 months probation, the longest period possible in his case, as well as go through a potentially months-long wilderness intervention program meant to attune behavior and social skills. The teen, an Eagle Scout, will be required to continue counseling on racial biases and serve 100 hours of community service as well as write an essay on how his actions violated the Boy Scout code. He must not have any disciplinary issues in school and cannot visit Cardinal Newman.
The teen’s parents also have to abide by requirements of the sentence, in particular monitoring their son’s cell phone, social media and video game use. Guns that were confiscated by authorities from their home after the videos surfaced will be given to other people approved by the sheriff’s department.
“I have been doing this for almost 15 years and this has been one of the most difficult cases we’ve ever had,” Hendricks told the judge. “His actions on one hand seem so juvenile and minor. Those actions on the other hand have had such an impact on the community that it’s even hard to describe.”
The principal of Cardinal Newman, Robert Loia, sat on a pew behind the prosecution in the courtroom.
Hendricks pointed to him and said he represented the community that was victimized in the case. “We’re here for a simple text message but it’s not a simple text message,” Hendricks said.
The teen could not be criminally charged for the videos, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott previously said. But the videos gave context to the crime, Hendricks told the judge.
Loia read a statement to the court saying the teen showed “irrational anger” toward people at his school and “lack of empathy.”
“As a member of a community that believes in the dignity of all people, (he) acted in direct opposition to that fundamental Christian belief,” Loia said. “At Cardinal Newman those actions created an overall atmosphere of fear, anger and dread.”
Other students and parents wrote six victims statements that were presented to the judge to reinforce the damage the teen had done.
The starkness of his actions compared to the school’s beliefs caused members of the Cardinal Newman community to “distrust” each other, Loia said. Their community is “still dealing with the effects of that action,” he said, while acknowledging that the teen’s family was also “devastated.”
The principal said Cardinal Newman believes in the restorative power of forgiveness and not in recompense punishment. He hoped and prayed for three outcomes from the judge’s sentence.
Loia hoped the consequence would bring the teen remorse for his actions, that the sentence would assure he will no longer be a threat to Cardinal Newman or others, and that he be led to a “genuine conversion of mind and heart.”
The teen’s defense lawyers, Wes Kirkland and Dayton Riddle, offered no defense for the racist and violent nature of the texts and videos.
The “two racial videos” were “reprehensible,” Riddle said, and difficult to understand.
“Because when I have talked to this young man, he is a nice, respectable, intelligent, well-spoken young man.”
The videos weren’t posted online but shared in a group text, Riddle told the court.
“What he did was wrong,” the attorney said. “I don’t think that (the teen) had the malevolent intent ascribed to him by some members of the community.”
Riddle went on to explain how the teen was living up to Loia’s three hopes.
The teen and his parents were remorseful and remain remorseful today, Riddle said, rebuffing victims’ statements saying they’ve not shown remorse. Riddle told the court it was his decision for the teen and his parents to not speak publicly about the situation and to wait for court hearings to express themselves.
Relatives of the teen attended the hearing to support him as well as two priests and a long-time family friend, former South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Chief Reggie Lloyd.
The defense also offered up two psychology experts who worked with the teen, examining his personality and the risk that he could be dangerous.
“I do not consider him a specific danger or specific risk for perpetuating school violence at this time,” forensic psychiatrist Donna Maddox told the court.
Maddox, who studied school shooters and worked with teenagers over decades, said the teen didn’t match the profile of a school shooter. He was not depressed or angry, not bullied, and had not experienced loss or sought revenge, which are among the characteristics of many mass shooters.
She pointed out that the teen sent the text saying he was on his way to shoot up the school on a Saturday.
“I’ve never in my life seen a case where there was no actual physical injury that has caused as much collateral damage as this one has,” Riddle said
The judge gave the teen his own opportunity to speak on the collateral damage and Loia’s last point — that the former student have a change of heart and mind.
The teen stood in the courtroom toward the end of the hearing and addressed the judge directly. When the teen’s voice wavered, his father offered him a hand.
The teen called the videos and messages “an attempt at humor” but made no excuses for the recordings, saying they “do not represent my values or the values taught to me by my family.”
“Anything I said is not meant to excuse or minimize my wrongdoing or the people affected by it and I accept full responsibility for the pain and hurt caused by this,” the teen said.
The father who comforted his son cried himself when he spoke before the judge.
“When I saw those text and videos that first day, I couldn’t believe it was my son,” the father said.
He also apologized to everyone associated with Cardinal Newman. “Most importantly to the African American community I want to say we’re sorry.”
The videos were not reflective of the son he knew or the family’s Christian values, the father said.
“I am proud of him for standing here today and taking responsibility and being willing to accept the court’s ruling no matter what they may be,” his father said. “I know (his) heart and that he has a love of Christ. ... I honestly believe that there’s some larger plan that God has for him, that God will work through him to be a force of good.”
Before sentencing the teen, Guess said he had “reasonable certainty” that the teen “is not a credible threat” even while calling the videos “very disturbing.”
In levying the harsher punishment recommended by the prosecution, Guess told the court he believed the sentence was best for “the community and state of South Carolina.”
When Guess adjourned the court, the teen was separated from his parents and escorted away by a deputy to begin his jail sentence.