Psychiatrists conflict over rehabilitation for teen shooter

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A teen who killed his father at home before fatally shooting a first-grader on a South Carolina elementary school playground is either a traumatized son who can be rehabilitated or a dangerous and pathological liar with no remorse, according to the conflicting testimony of several mental health professionals Wednesday.

Judge Lawton McIntosh heard both sides during a special hearing to determine a sentence for 17-year-old Jesse Osborne. The sentence will range from 30 years to life in prison.

Osborne had just turned 14 when he took a gun from his father’s nightstand, shooting his dad three times in the head as he napped in a recliner at their Anderson County home in September 2016.

The teen then stole his father’s pickup truck and drove 3 miles (5 kilometers) to Townville Elementary School, which he had attended as a child. Osborne crashed the truck into a fence and fired several shots, killing 6-year-old Jacob Hall and causing minor injuries to two other students and a teacher.

McIntosh isn’t only considering whether Osborne can be rehabilitated. The judge also will hear testimony this week about the teen’s home and family, the circumstances of the crime and Osborne’s maturity.

Osborne’s half-brother testified Wednesday that Jesse Osborne’s father drank every day, withheld food from his son as punishment and when he got mad at him would make him pull down his pants and grab a stick, belt or whatever he could find.

“He would just start wailing on Jesse. I could hear the screams throughout the house,” Ryan Brock said.

Jesse Osborne pleaded guilty to two counts of murder after a different judge ruled he could be tried as an adult.

The hearing is required under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that life sentences for juveniles can’t be mandatory and arbitrary. Prosecutors have asked for a life sentence, saying Osborne studied and was obsessed by the notoriety of school shooters in Columbine, Colorado, and Sandy Hook, Connecticut. They said he bragged about planning to kill dozens of school kids.

Two psychiatrists testified for the prosecution that Osborne is dangerous. One of them, James Ballenger, said that on several occasions he felt chills when talking to the teen and reviewing his case.

Ballenger said he was particularly disturbed by Osborne’s response to a deputy investigating why he had brought a hatchet to his middle school several months before the shooting.

Osborne told the officer, “I’m going to do Columbine better.”

The deputy told Osborne’s parents that he thought their son was going to kill one of them, Ballenger said.

“I can’t say that without a shudder going down my spine today,” he said.

Ballenger said he also was shocked when Osborne recounted pulling wings off crickets so they would be helpless as ants attacked; shooting dogs with a pellet gun, and throwing frogs against concrete.

Ballenger said Osborne’s attempt to be polite and helpful during the police interviews was a façade. He said the teen has told psychiatrists he still daydreams about killing people even though the feelings he got shooting his father and at the children didn’t match what he expected.

In February 2018, Ballenger testified that Osborne should be tried as an adult because the teen had a rare combination of no remorse and no understanding of the consequences of what he did, even once saying he did the first-grader a favor by killing him. He said nothing has changed his mind.

“I’m even more pessimistic” now, Ballenger said Wednesday.

Earlier Wednesday, psychologist Ernest Martin, who works at the jail where Osborne is being held, said the teen didn’t realize the consequences of his actions and could be rehabilitated.

Martin said Osborne was traumatized from years of bullying and abuse by his father, was depressed, and showed remorse for the killings.

Another defense psychiatrist, Albert Gordon Teichner, testified that Osborne cannot process emotions.

But Teichner said it’s important to remember that Osborne’s brain, like that of all teens, is still developing, meaning that he could change. He already has responded to the treatment he has received in jail since his arrest, Teichner said.

“He’s a very disturbed child, absolutely,” Teichner said. “This is a boy, no offense to Jesse — he’s strange, odd — just meeting with him on first glance you can tell something is wrong with him.”

More defense experts are likely to testify later in the hearing.


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This first paragraph of this story has been edited to correct that several mental health professionals testified, not just two.

Jeffrey Collins covers South Carolina.