In the fall of 2015, a Seymour High School student began planning a “Columbine-style” attack on his school specifically targeting two students — a girl he had a crush on, and the other boy that girl liked. The plan was reported and foiled without any harm, but now the Indiana Supreme Court must decide whether delinquent adjudications imposed on the high school conspirator will stand.
The juvenile court originally adjudicated B.T.E. as a delinquent for acts that would be conspiracy to commit aggravated battery and attempted aggravated battery if committed by an adult, while his alleged co-conspirator, M.V., was adjudicated only for conspiracy to commit aggravated battery. A divided Court of Appeals, however, overturned B.T.E.’s attempt adjudication, with the majority finding his conduct — which included drawing diagrams of the school and soliciting help from M.V. and another student — did not go beyond mere preparation and planning.
Patrick Magrath, counsel for B.T.E. who argued before the Indiana Supreme Court on Thursday morning, agreed with the Court of Appeals’ assessment of the attempt adjudication, telling the justices that B.T.E.’s acts of drawing the diagrams, researching how to make pipe bombs and soliciting help from his peers did not constitute a “substantial step” toward the commission of his crime.
Under the threshold in Hampton v. State, 468 N.E.2d 1077 (Ind. Ct. App. 1984), a person’s actions do not legally constitute an attempt unless the alleged perpetrator approaches the planned victim, Magrath said. Here, B.T.E. merely discussed his desire to inflict harm on his classmates, but did not actually approach those classmates to inflict that harm, he said.
The state, however, said under the totality of the circumstances, all of B.T.E.’s actions are enough to meet the requirements for attempted aggravated battery. Had the teenager only solicited help from M.V., there may not have been enough evidence to support the attempt adjudication, Katherine Cooper, counsel for the state, told the justices. But B.T.E. went beyond mere solicitation to drawing diagrams, conducting research and sharing that research with M.V. — steps that, taken together, constituted a “substantial step” toward committing his planned crime.
Noting that determining what a “substantial step” entails is a highly fact-sensitive issue, the justices wrestled with where to draw the line between mere preparation and overt acts that could meet the substantial step threshold. Justice Geoffrey Slaughter asked counsel for both parties what language the court should use to provide guidance on that line when it issues its opinion.
Cooper urged the high court to instruct appellate courts to give difference to trial and juvenile court findings, while also instructing lower courts to look to section 5.01 of the Model Penal Code. Magrath, however, argued that the attempt statute should be interpreted as a punishment for people who take all of the necessary steps to complete their crimes — such as driving and entering a bank to be robbed — but fail to see those steps through to the end.
B.T.E.’s conspiracy to commit aggravated battery adjudication was also a point of brief discussion at Thursday’s arguments, though Justice Steven David told Magrath the court was more concerned with resolving the issues related to the attempt adjudication. Magrath argued the evidence presented could not prove a conspiracy because the record does not contain support for the notion that M.V. and B.T.E. agreed to shoot up the school.
Only M.V.’s alleged statements could support that notion, the attorney said, but those statements should have been considered inadmissible hearsay.
The full oral arguments in B.T.E. v. State of Indiana, 36S05-1711-JV-00711, can be viewed here.