Both boys guilty in Ark. school shootings 14-year-old apologizes

judge remands them into juvenile detention


JONESBORO, Ark. -- Just before a judge remanded 14-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 12-year-old Andrew Golden into juvenile detention for a middle school shooting that killed a teacher and four girls, the older boy offered a childlike excuse.

He said he did not mean to do it.

"I thought we were going to shoot over their heads," said the trembling Johnson youth, who pleaded guilty in an adjudication hearing -- the juvenile court equivalent of a trial -- in the Craighead County Courthouse yesterday, on his 14th birthday. "We didn't think anybody was going to get hurt."

Andrew Golden, who was 11 years old on March 24, the day he and Johnson lured their Westside Middle schoolmates outside with a false fire alarm and then fired repeatedly into the terrified crowd with high-powered rifles, pleaded not guilty. His lawyer said his client was insane at the time and was not mentally competent to stand trial, although the judge did not allow him to plead so.

Circuit Judge Ralph Wilson, after a two-hour trial in which prosecutors quickly laid out an open-and-shut case, convicted Golden and found him, along with Johnson, to be "delinquent," the juvenile equivalent of a guilty verdict.

The judge, his hands tied by strict laws that prevent anyone who commits a serious crime before age 14 from being punished as an adult, remanded the boys to the Division of Youth Services, where they will probably be held in a juvenile detention center until their 18th birthdays, then released.

"The punishment will not fit the crime," said Wilson, as the kin of the five victims clutched one another's arms and pressed tissues to crying eyes.

Under state law, the two boys could be held until they turn 21, but the state has no facility for adult offenders sentenced under juvenile court laws, and cannot, by law, put the boys in a state prison.

Gov. Mike Huckabee has said he will build a prison or modify an existing one to hold the two as long as the state can.

Relatives of the victims -- nine students and a teacher were also wounded in the attack -- had hoped the hearing would finally answer why this thing was done, would reveal what was going on in the minds of the two boys.

But Golden, an award-winning marksman who stole guns from his grandfather to use in the shooting, refused to say anything, and Johnson offered more of an apology than an explanation.

Although police and ballistics experts have said the boys methodically fired into the crowd -- Shannon Wright, an English teacher, was hit twice by a 30.06 hunting rifle fired by Johnson -- the boy said he did not mean to shoot anyone.

"I am sorry," he said. "I understand that it may be impossible for some of you to forgive me. If I could go back and change what happened on March 24, 1998, I would in a minute. I have caused pain. I have asked God for forgiveness and that he will heal the lives of the people I have hurt by my actions."

For the relatives of the boys' victims, the justice they received was not nearly enough. They saw only two boys who, even now, refused to take responsibility for their actions.

In a withering testimony in which he spoke directly to the two boys, Mitchell Wright, the husband of the slain teacher, said there was no way the killings were unintentional.

The older boy was firing a rifle with a telescopic sight.

"You can't tell me it was random, son, not with the scope on that gun," Wright said, his face red, his eyes beginning to tear.

The bullets took his best friend and the mother from their 3-year-old son, Zane.

The boy has been told his mother is in heaven, but he wonders why, when he wants to be rocked to sleep, she cannot come down and do it.

"Zane looks for his mother to come back," said Wright. "You have robbed a 3-year-old boy of his innocence. He told me, 'Don't worry about those two bad boys. If they break out of jail, I'll take care of you.' "

He talked about how his wife gave Andrew extra time on a project, because he was nervous.

Wright, like others, asked the boys to someday "tell us why."

Pub Date: 8/12/98

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