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Originally published Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 12:03 AM

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Ind. boy appeals prison sentence imposed at age 12

Attorneys for an Indiana boy sent to prison at age 12 for helping a friend kill the other boy's stepfather will ask an appeals court Tuesday to toss his conviction, arguing that he was tried as an adult by a judge who didn't consider whether the sixth grader was mature enough to understand what was happening.

Associated Press

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INDIANAPOLIS —

Attorneys for an Indiana boy sent to prison at age 12 for helping a friend kill the other boy's stepfather will ask an appeals court Tuesday to toss his conviction, arguing that he was tried as an adult by a judge who didn't consider whether the sixth grader was mature enough to understand what was happening.

Paul Henry Gingerich, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison under a plea agreement, is appealing his case to the Indiana Court of Appeals. Lawyers for Gingerich, who is now 14, want the case sent to juvenile court for a fresh start before a new judge.

But state attorneys argue that the boy gave up his right to appeal when he signed a plea agreement. They also say his parents believed the boy knew what he was doing.

Gingerich and a 15-year-old friend were convicted of shooting the friend's stepfather, 49-year-old Phillip Danner, after waiting for him in the living room of his home in April 2010 in northeast Indiana's Kosciusko County. The slaying was part of a plot to run away to Arizona with a third boy who was also 12, according to court documents.

Those documents show that Gingerich said he simply went along with his older friend and didn't believe he was serious about killing his stepfather. He said he closed his eyes when he fired the gun.

Gingerich was originally charged with murder, but he agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of conspiracy to commit murder in November 2010.

His attorney, Monica Foster, argues in court motions that a Kosciusko County judge waived the case to adult court within a week after prosecutors asked, spurning defense attorneys' request for a psychological evaluation and without holding a competency hearing even though "the mere sight of Paul ought to have been cause for pause."

She notes that the only psychologist to evaluate the boy raised doubts about his ability to understand his rights. Foster also cites scientific research showing that the areas of the brain that control judgment and impulse control are undeveloped in adolescents.

In addition, Foster argues, the judge rejected defense attorneys' requests for more time to prepare even though prosecutors hadn't turned over the evidence against Gingerich.

"Paul's counsel had grossly inadequate time to prepare for the single biggest event in his young client's life," Foster wrote.

The nonprofit Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia is supporting Gingerich, arguing in a court brief that children "often lack the experience, perspective and judgment to recognize and avoid choices that could be detrimental to them."

Deputy Attorney General Angela Sanchez countered by saying Gingerich waived his right to appeal as part of the plea agreement, and that the psychologist who evaluated Gingerich didn't explicitly say he wasn't competent to stand trial.

"While a psychological evaluation presented at sentencing expressed concerns about some factors related to the defendant's competence, the doctor did not actually opine that the defendant was not competent," prosecutors said in a court brief.

State attorneys say Gingerich's parents told prosecutors that they thought the boy understood what he was doing when he signed the plea agreement and waived his right to appeal.

The 15-year-old, who also pleaded guilty as an adult to conspiracy to commit murder, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The other 12-year-old, who was present but didn't enter the house, was sentenced to juvenile detention until age 18.

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