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Phelps Admits Attempted Murder In School Shooting Case

The trial in the shooting of a teenager at Martinsville West Middle School took a turn Monday which ended the bench hearing faster than anyone expected.

Phelps trial

Photo: Stan Jastrzebski/WFIU

From left: defense attorney Steven Litz, Morgan County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Bob Cline and Morgan County Prosecutor Steve Sonnega talk about the resolution of the case.

3:00 p.m. update

Before the trial began, it was already clear the two key witnesses would be Michael Phelps, the 16-year old accused of shooting a 15-year old classmate and his victim, Chance Jackson.  Both took the stand before the trial was over, but it was the speed with which both their testimonies ended that was the story.  Jackson was on the stand just five minutes, long enough to recount what he remembers of a profanity-laced confrontation with Phelps on the morning of March 25th.  Jackson says Phelps accused him of talking trash behind his back, an accusation Jackson denied.  When Phelps challenged Jackson to a fight, he declined.  Phelps, Jackson says, told him that was “too bad”, pulled a gun and fired twice.  Jackson stood in the witness box to point to the two places he’d been hit – in the center of his abdomen, just below the sternum and on his left side, just below his ribs.  With no questions from defense lawyer Steven Litz, the prosecution rested and Litz called what was to be his only witness, Phelps himself.  Litz didn’t even stand up to ask the sole question he would offer – whether Phelps intended to kill Jackson when he fired the shots.  Phelps indicated he did.  In less than ten minutes, the trial was over.

For weeks, Litz had said he’d present a technical case showing Phelps intended to harm, but not to murder Jackson.  But after Judge Thomas Gray pronounced Phelps guilty of attempted murder, Litz told reporters he’d had a conversation with his teenage client last Thursday where Phelps indicated he no longer wanted to fight the most serious charge against him.  Prosecutor Steve Sonnega says the admission came as a surprise on one hand, but follows the apparent feeling of prospective jurors who were questioned about the case…

“Our case kept getting stronger and stronger,” Sonnega said.  “If you recall when we were in Clay County, the jury kind of gave an earful of where they thought we were on intent…”

Those jurors were never empaneled, because Litz felt the pool had been tainted to the point where his client couldn’t receive a fair trial anywhere in central Indiana.  But he says what the Clay County jurors appeared to believe didn’t figure into Monday’s outcome…

“What happened two weeks ago with the jury…that has absolutely no relation whatsoever, because two weeks ago I had every intention of trying this case in front of Judge Gray,” Litz said.

Five lesser charges against Phelps were dropped in exchange for the admission of the attempted murder charge.  He could face a 20-50 year sentence when his jail term is decided next month.  Prosecutor Sonnega could not say what penalty he’ll seek at the August 12th hearing, but Litz said he hopes his client’s admission of guilt will sway the judge to impose a reduced sentence.  With good behavior and the minimum sentence, Phelps could be free again when he’s in his mid-20s.

9:15 a.m. update

Monday’s trial lasted less than 10 minutes with only Phelps and Jackson taking the stand and neither facing cross examination.

Defense Attorney Steven Litz said on Thursday Michael Phelps, 16, informed him that he wanted to change his plea regarding the attempted murder charge.

Phelps faces between 20 and 50 years in prison. Morgan County Prosecutor Steve Sonnega said he does not know what prison term he will ask for at Phelps’ August 12 sentencing.

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