A 10-year probation sentence was given Wednesday to the 17-year-old student who admitted setting a fire which gutted Needville High School last April 23.
The teen, who has been living in Rosenberg for about eight months, broke into effusive tears after hearing the sentence. His parents also cried, sitting directly behind him in a small courtroom filled with fire investigators, the teen's relatives and Needville ISD staff members.
The boy set the fire when he was 16 years old, a juvenile. Prosecutors in October argued that he be tried as an adult, facing the possibility of life in prison on a first-degree felony arson charge.
Judge Dennis Watson turned down that request, however, so prosecutors instead asked for what is called a determinate sentence. That is a punishment where the teen would begin a prison sentence with the Texas Youth Commission until he turns 19 – then he would either be paroled to live in the community or be transferred to an adult prison.
With Wednesday's sentence, however, the boy's probation will carry over into the adult system once he comes of age, and he will be subject to conditions that include the performance of 2,000 hours of community service work.
Prosecutors are barred from discussing the case with the general public due to laws governing juvenile proceedings. In court, however, lead juvenile prosecutor Tyra McCollum argued a prison sentence would offer a message to other juveniles while providing “closure” for members of the Needville community.
“I am asking the court to offer a disposition that gives some sense of satisfaction to a community that up until now has had none,” she said.
Defense attorney Steven Rocket Rosen, in asking the judge for probation, pointed out his client has been undergoing multiple treatments for various psychological issues and has followed every rule of his supervised release.
Among those speaking in the juvenile's favor were a youth minister at River Pointe Church and a psychologist who has been offering therapy.
“I'm glad the judge has an open mind,” said Rosen after the trial. “Sometimes, the right decision is not always the most popular one.”
The father of the child said he is “truly sorry” for the actions of his son, and said the teen has been remorseful.
The fire, started at two spots using 10 gallons of gasoline, destroyed the distinct, historic entrance to the campus, known for its creaky wooden floors. Also lost were trophies, school records and the personal belongings of students and staff.
Prosecutors argued the teen set the fire over anger with a punishment of in-school suspension, but the defense contended the reasons for the fire and the teen's thinking that morning are unclear.
One psychologist even raised the possibility the teen experienced side effects of the controversial anti-depressant Paxil, which has been known in rare cases to increase levels of aggression and risk-taking.
The teen faced trial this week in County Court-at-Law No. 1, where he pleaded “true” to all allegations against him. The boy confessed on May 7, two weeks after the fire, by which time investigators were reportedly honing in on him as the prime suspect.
The blaze caused approximately $8 million in damage to the school and was investigated by the Fort Bend Fire Marshal's Office, the Texas Rangers and federal investigators.
Fire departments from all over Fort Bend County tackled the flames, which raged from approximately 3-8 a.m. that day.