Attorney: Teen to plead guilty but mentally ill in stabbings

By JOE MANDAK

Associated Press

GREENSBURG — A teen charged with slashing and stabbing 20 fellow students and a security guard at a Pennsylvania high school is guilty but was mentally ill during the April 2014 rampage, his defense attorney said again Monday.

Trouble is, a prosecutor insists the teen is just plain guilty and wasn’t unduly driven by mental illness. So a judge on Monday said he’ll digest testimony from psychological experts and gave attorneys more than 40 days to file written arguments about whether he should accept the teen’s proposed plea to 21 counts each of attempted homicide and aggravated assault, plus a school weapons violation.

Both sides agree Alex Hribal, 19, walked robotically through the hallways of Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, using two 8-inch kitchen knives to carve a bloody path though the hallways at the upper-middle class school about 15 miles east of Pittsburgh. Hribal was 16 years old when he attacked on April 9, 2014, purposely choosing the birthday of Eric Harris, one of two teens psychiatrists say Hribal “worshipped” for their attacks on Columbine High School near Denver on April 20, 1999.

Hribal told psychiatric experts for the prosecution and the defense he first wanted to commit the attacks on the 15th anniversary of the Columbine attacks but couldn’t because school wasn’t in session that day.

But lingering questions about whether that and other evidence means Hribal was too mentally ill to have a “substantial capacity” to “appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the law,” are preventing Westmoreland County Judge Christopher Feliciani from determining whether Hribal is guilty but mentally ill.

If the judge eventually accepts that plea, Hribal will be sent to a mental hospital to begin serving what’s expected to be decades of incarceration and moved to prison only if doctors determine he’s no longer mentally ill. If the judge rejects the plea, defense attorney Patrick Thomassey said he’ll let a jury decide whether Hribal is guilty but mentally ill, guilty or not guilty by reason of insanity.

“I tried to settle this thing by pleading guilty but mentally ill, but the DA said ‘no,'” Thomassey said. “I think the general public has this idea that if it’s ‘guilty but mentally ill’ that when he’s well he gets to go home. He goes to prison. I’m not sure what we’re fighting over,” Thomassey said.

District Attorney John Peck acknowledged Hribal likely faces a long incarceration whether the judge accepts the plea or Hribal is convicted some other way.

“But in such a serious case, I don’t think we should just concede” that Hribal is mentally ill, Peck said. Four of Hribal’s victims were critically injured, including one who required a liver transplant, but all survived and have since recovered.

Peck said it’s not a foregone conclusion that Hribal was mentally ill, even if he was obsessed with the Columbine teens who killed 12 students and one teacher and wounded more than 20 others before taking their own lives.

Dr. Alan Axelson, one of three defense experts who testified Monday that Hribal was psychotic during the stabbing rampage, said the teen was depressed and had contemplated suicide since he was in the fourth grade and was hoping to be killed during the Franklin Regional High attacks.

But Dr. Bruce Wright, the DA’s expert, said although Hribal was depressed and mentally ill “in my opinion he had the capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions.”

“He chose not to,” Wright said.