At the exact moment a teenage boy opened fire at a high school in California earlier this month, killing two students and wounding three others, another teenage school shooter sat in a South Carolina courtroom 2,300 miles away, waiting to be sentenced for the lives he had taken three years earlier.
At the end of the massacre at Saugus High School on Nov. 14, the attacker, who had turned 16 that day, shot himself in the head with the last round in his .45-caliber handgun. Jesse Osborne, the South Carolina shooter, had also pledged to end his life at the end of his rampage in September 2016, which started when he shot his father in the back of the head at their home. The boy, 14 at the time, then drove to the playground behind Townville Elementary School and raised his .40-caliber pistol, shooting a teacher and two first-graders before his gun jammed. He never turned the weapon on himself, instead giving up and tossing it to the ground.
Osborne’s survival left the community he devastated with a question that has been asked over and over in recent decades: What should be done with children who shoot to death other children at schools?
Since the attack at Columbine High School two decades ago, at least 33 underage shooters have killed someone on a K-12 campus, including eight in the past two years, according to a Washington Post analysis. Since 1999, 10 of those young gunmen killed themselves, too, which means the fates of nearly two dozen children and teens have been, or will be, left up to judges and juries.
In hopes that the court might one day set him free, Osborne pleaded guilty late last year to murdering his father, Jeffrey, as well as 6-year-old Jacob Hall. Investigators, however, found that Osborne had meticulously planned his crime for weeks, studying other mass murderers and aiming to slaughter “50 or 60” children — “if I get lucky maybe 150.” He never showed remorse, prosecutors said, not even on the day of his sentencing, when he did not apologize but did ask Judge Lawton McIntosh to “give me hope for a future.”
Instead, McIntosh ruled that Osborne, now 17, deserved the maximum punishment allowable by South Carolina law: life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Such heavy sentences are controversial, and critics of them often argue that children cannot be treated like adults because scientific research shows that their brains haven’t fully developed.
“In our view, this is cruel and inhumane,” said Udi Ofer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Justice Division. “The United States is the only country in the world that allows children to be sentenced to life without parole. We’re an anomaly.”
The prosecutor in Osborne’s case, David Wagner, who witnessed up close just how much the teen’s acts of violence wrecked the community, said he would have sought the death penalty had it been an option.
“I don’t care if he was 14 or not,” Wagner said. “He should never have the opportunity to get out and do that again.”
How to punish any underage killer is a point of constant debate and one that the U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on three times since 2005 — banning juveniles from being sentenced to the death penalty, banning juveniles from being sentenced to life without parole for crimes in which a homicide was not committed and banning juveniles from facing mandatorysentences of life without parole under any circumstances. According to the nonprofit Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, at least 22 states and the District of Columbia mandate that young convicts receive a chance for parole, regardless of their crime.
School shooters, though, present the judicial system with a unique challenge. They can terrify hundreds of children, leaving some with debilitating trauma that haunts them for years. Although school shootings remain rare, more than 233,000 students have experienced gun violence on their campuses over the past 20 years, and millions more have suffered through lockdowns.
Prison sentences that include the chance for parole can place an additional burden on victims, a reality that Cam Miller has endured for four decades.
In a San Diego suburb on Jan. 29, 1979, Brenda Spencer, 16, aimed her .22-caliber rifle at Grover Cleveland Elementary in one of the country’s first high-profile school shootings. She killed the principal and custodian and wounded eight children, including Miller, who was 9 years old.
The bullet that blew through him missed his heart by an inch. He later heard that Spencer had fired at him because he was wearing a coat that was blue, her favorite color. Famously, the teen told a reporter that she had shot up the school for a simple reason: “I just don’t like Mondays.”
Spencer first became eligible for parole in 1993 and has faced at least a half-dozen board hearings since. Miller, now 50, has never missed one. At her last hearing, in 2016, he was the only victim to testify.
“I have a duty,” he said. “I want to make sure she stays in there for life.”
Miller has never entirely recovered. He sees the scar on his chest every day. In restaurants, he always tries to sit facing the entrance. On Mondays, he doesn’t wear blue. And yet he keeps attending the hearings, each one forcing him to relive his life’s worst day, because of the risk that Spencer could be set free.
“If the victims don’t show up,” he said, “she’ll get out.”
Hannah Dysinger has already begun to worry about that. On Jan. 23, 2018, Hannah, at the time a sophomore at Kentucky’s Marshall County High School, was one of 16 students shot by a 15-year-old schoolmate named Gabriel Parker, police say. Hannah survived the bullet wound to her chest but lost her best friend, one of two students killed that day. The case’s prosecutor has said he will seek the maximum punishment possible, but according to Kentucky law, Parker would still be eligible for parole after 25 years.
Hannah, now 17, returned to school on the first day of her junior year but felt too overwhelmed to stay. She finished her classes online and has since moved away, enrolling early in college. She continues to struggle with nightmares and loud noises, and she hates the idea of having to face Parker at parole hearings, in her 40s and beyond, to demand that he remain imprisoned.
Peter Langman, a psychologist who has studied dozens of mass school shooters, said many who have received long sentences, including Osborne and Spencer, have demonstrated little or no remorse. They have also lied to deflect blame and show no signs of mental illness. He contrasted those shooters with others, such as Kip Kinkel, who was 15 in 1998 when he shot his parents to death the day before attacking his Oregon high school, killing two students and wounding more than 20 others. Experts in his case found that he had paranoid schizophrenia, a treatable mental illness. Even so, he was sentenced to 112 years in prison.
Langman questioned the “humanity of putting a mentally ill 15-year-old away for the rest of his life,” as did attorneys for Kinkel, who appealed his sentence to the Oregon Supreme Court, which rejected their argument in a ruling last year.
What remains unknown, Langman said, is how much of a risk school shooters pose to society after they are set free. A pair of reviews, one a graduate thesis and the other a study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice, found that people who kill as children have been charged with serious and often violent offenses at a high rate after they have been released.
Langman knew of at least 10 underage shooters who had been let out, and although that’s too small of a sample size from which to draw any meaningful conclusions, he said he didn’t believe any of them had since committed serious crimes. Still, two of them raised substantial concerns that they had at least considered new acts of violence.
Mitchell Johnson was 13 and Andrew Golden was 11 when they gunned down five people at their Arkansas middle school in 1998. At the time, state law required that they be tried as juveniles, and each was released at age 21. Johnson was convicted on a federal gun charge in 2008; the same year, Golden attempted to obtain a concealed-handgun permit.
Many school shooters don’t fit the stereotype of the indiscriminate teenage killer. The youngest school shooter in modern American history was 6 years old and killed a classmate in 2000 because he didn’t like her. Because of his age, he served no time in prison. A boy in Birmingham, Alabama, who was 17 when he unintentionally fired a round through the heart of a classmate last year, received 12 months behind bars.
A 16-year-old who killed a boy of the same age in Charlotte, North Carolina, in October 2018 was later sentenced to up to nine years in prison, the result of a plea deal prosecutors offered because they thought the shooter might argue that he had acted in self-defense.
Still, the scope of a school shooting doesn’t always dictate the terror it causes. Less than two weeks after the Charlotte incident, another campus in the community went into lockdown and a 12-year-old there who had heard about the teen’s death scribbled a goodbye note to his mother.
“I hope that you are going to be ok with me gone,” he wrote her.
It’s that same sort of terror that parents in Townville, South Carolina, hope Jesse Osborne’s lifelong sentence will allay. For three years, many of the child survivors have obsessed over Osborne coming back for them.
Siena Kibilko, who was 6 when Osborne pulled up to the playground, had often asked her mother, Marylea, when the teen would be released.
“Not anytime when you’re still a kid,” Marylea would reluctantly respond, because she, too, feared that he might one day go free.
Marylea hasn’t told Siena the news that he’ll never get out, though, because just hearing Osborne’s name can be too painful for her daughter to bear.