“Oh my God, they did it, they did it, you have to come or we’re all going to die, please . . . help!”

On November 21, 2011, police received a 911 call from a distraught female who was crying and whispering frantically, “Oh my God, they did it, they did it, you have to come or we’re all going to die, please . . . help!” The line went dead, but as abruptly as that call ended, several more 911 calls came in. One said that there had been a shooting, one caller was unintelligible, and one said to come to the high school. Simultaneously, a fire alarm came in from the local high school.

All available officers were dispatched to the high school, where they saw flames coming from the gym area and from a second-floor classroom window. As they ran toward the building, they heard several shots fired in quick succession. One officer radioed for the tactical squad to be dispatched to the high school.

Upon arrival, law enforcement immediately surrounded the perimeter of the school, while several officers entered the building to assess the situation. Officers heard four more shots, and then it went quiet. Tactical squad officers arrived, the building was searched, and officers found 14 students and teachers fatally wounded, including one student holding a shotgun who was later identified as Brian Davidson. An autopsy of that student revealed that he died by poisoning. Eventually, his death was ruled a suicide because an empty juice box found in his pocket contained traces of ricin, the remains of which would have been sufficient to kill a human being.

Officers accounted for three of the four 911 cell phone callers but located an abandoned cell phone on the floor of the school’s kitchen. Subsequent investigation revealed that the phone was registered to Gerald Hancock. The phone was fingerprinted, and two separate sets of prints were lifted from the phone. The same two sets of prints were located on the shotgun, which was also registered to Gerald Hancock. All bullets and bullet casings recovered came from the shotgun. Ultimately, forensics determined that the two sets of prints belonged to Tommy Hancock and Brian Davidson.
Further investigation revealed that Gerald Hancock’s son, Thomas, attended the high school, and the abandoned cell phone was regularly used by Tommy Hancock.

Video surveillance at the school revealed that Tommy Hancock and the dead student with the rifle entered the high school at essentially the same time and may have arrived together. Another camera captured them talking in a hallway at 9:23 a.m., and it appeared as though something passed between them, although other students passed in front of the camera at the same time, which obscured their interaction. Additional footage from other cameras showed students running in the halls. Officers also saw some footage that showed an object being thrown into a classroom, which erupted in fire, but the image of the person throwing the object was off-camera and could not be identified. There was not any footage showing how the fire started in the gym. The last bit of surveillance tape that was usable showed a student with a rifle and his back to the camera. He tipped something to his face, and in less than ten seconds, he slumped to the floor. Four other security cameras in the school had been defaced with black spray paint, and officers could not see anything on the surveillance tapes. These were the cameras in the areas where they found faculty and students shot.

On that date, 33 students had been marked absent. Ultimately, officers were able to account for all but six of the students registered at the school: two female students and four male students. None had a good explanation for their whereabouts, and their parents had not requested that they be excused from school. In fact, the parents had dropped the students off at school that morning and anticipated that they had entered the school building.

Officers quickly honed in on Tommy Hancock because his cell phone and his father’s gun were located in the school, video surveillance ostensibly showed him talking to the shooter, and Tommy Hancock’s cell phone showed an incoming call from Brian Davidson’s home number 3 days before the shooting. Tommy Hancock was 15 years old.

Police went to the high school 8 days after the shooting and placed him under arrest. Officers did not call his parents until after they had arrived at the police station. Each parent was called separately. Their phone call to his father went immediately to voice mail, and police left a message. They did reach his mother by phone and told her they were interviewing her son about the school shooting, but they did not tell her that she could be present during his interview. Tommy was interviewed for a total of 6 hours by three different detectives. The interview was videotaped. Tommy’s parents arrived at the police department 2 hours into his interview. They asked to see their son, and a detective said “just a minute,” but did not come back out to get them. At one point, Gerald Hancock asked a passing officer if he should get a lawyer for his son, but the officer responded by stating he did not know anything about his son’s case. Mr. Hancock called a couple of attorneys’ offices, but because it was after hours, he did not reach anyone. He left a voice mail for one attorney to call him back.

When officers were finished questioning Tommy Hancock, they came out of the interview room and told his parents that their son had been arrested for murder. An hour later, Mr. Hancock received a phone call from the one of the attorneys that he previously called. The attorney asked the parents if they were in the interview and if Tommy had agreed to talk with officers. The Hancocks had very little information to provide to the attorney, because they had not been present during the interview.

Tommy Hancock was charged with 14 counts of first-degree murder in juvenile court and was represented by attorney Nathan Johnson, who had never represented a juvenile nor served as a criminal defense attorney. The prosecutor announced that the state would file a motion to waive Tommy to adult court, to which his attorney said he would not object. Based on this representation, the juvenile court set a waiver hearing for 3 weeks in the future. During the interim, Mr. Johnson requested evidence from the prosecutor, including any written statements by Tommy Hancock, notes made by the police, and a copy of the videotaped interview. Halfway through the interview, the sound malfunctioned, and 4 hours of the interview were silent. Mr. Johnson did not conduct any additional discovery or talk with any witnesses. He read the entirety of the prosecutor’s case file and determined that there was no way that his client would win at trial.

Tommy Hancock lived in a state where juveniles charged with crimes may have a jury trial, but a specific jury trial demand must be filed. In the absence of the demand being requested through counsel, a jury trial is deemed waived. Mr. Johnson did not file a demand for a jury trial, and the court found on the record that a jury trial was waived. Based on the media attention attached to the case and the evidence against his client, Mr. Johnson counseled Tommy Hancock to enter a guilty plea to all charges. Mr. Johnson told Tommy and his family that he believed the court would be more sympathetic to Tommy if the case came to a swift conclusion.

Tommy told his attorney that he was not guilty and that the police told him that all of the evidence pointed to his guilt. Tommy said that he told the police he wanted to talk to his parents, but police told him that his parents were not there. They also told him that if he just told the truth, he would be able to go home, and they could close their file. He said the police told him that they had his cell phone and that the surveillance tapes showed him talking with Brian Davidson and the two of them at school together. Police also told him that they had interviewed several students who told them that Tommy Hancock and Brian Davidson were together and that it was Tommy Hancock who started the fires. Tommy’s attorney said that the evidence was pretty overwhelming and that he should plead guilty. The attorney said that he would get a lighter punishment if he pled guilty. If he had a trial, the judge would be likely to “throw the book” at him.

The attorney met with Tommy and his parents and told them that Tommy needed to plead guilty because there was “no way” they would win at trial with all of this evidence. The parents asked the attorney what would happen to Tommy if he pled guilty. The attorney told all of them that he could “guarantee” that Tommy would not have to go to jail because he was just a kid and that they should do as he said because he was the attorney.

Based on the advice from Tommy’s attorney, Tommy pled guilty in adult court. The judge conducted allocution and asked Tommy if he was pleading guilty of his own free will because he was guilty, whether he had had sufficient time to talk with his attorney, and if Tommy was satisfied with the representation of his attorney. Tommy was very timid in responding to all questions, although he did respond in the affirmative but he looked at his attorney after each question to see what he was supposed to do. When asked if he was satisfied with his attorney’s representation, he responded, “I guess.” The judge did not inquire further or ask questions about Tommy’s timidity. The case was continued for sentencing.

Despite Tommy’s lack of criminal record and his statements to the presentence author that he did not commit this crime, the judge sentenced Tommy to 15 years to be served in state prison. Because Tommy was a juvenile, he would be housed separately from other inmates, but because he had been convicted as an adult, he would go to state prison. Tommy’s mother shouted out that the attorney told all of them that Tommy would get house arrest. Tommy immediately began crying. Tommy’s mother was ordered out of the courtroom because of her outburst, and Tommy was led away in handcuffs.

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