On Tuesday, a year after he murdered three Chardon High School students and injured three others, 18-year-old T.J. Lane walked into his sentencing hearing and made it virtually impossible for most of us to summon even a shred of sympathy for his condemned soul.
But summon we must. If we are good people – and most of us want to believe we are – we are called to dig deeper for compassion that eludes us, lest our own souls wither.
Bear with me, please. I’ve worked hard in the past 24 hours to find this patch of my heart. It’s a tenuous grasp, and I’m trying to hold on tight.
On the morning of Feb. 27, 2012, Lane walked into the high school cafeteria in Chardon, Ohio, and started shooting. By the time he was done, three students were dead: Daniel Parmertor and Demetrius Hewlin, who were 16, and 17-year-old Russell King Jr. Three other students were injured: Nate Mueller, 17, Joy Rickers, 19, and Nick Walczak, who is now in a wheelchair. One of the more heartbreaking video images of Tuesday’s hearing – and there are so many – is of Walczak’s shy smile as he rolled his chair into the courtroom.
He later strained to catch a glimpse of his shooter.
Last month, Lane pleaded guilty to all of his crimes. He was 17 at the time of the shootings, so he will escape the death penalty. I do not mourn this legal outcome, as I oppose capital punishment. However, I was overcome with feelings I am ashamed to claim after witnessing Lane’s behavior in court Tuesday.
As soon as he sat down in the courtroom, Lane peeled off his light blue oxford shirt to reveal a white T-shirt with a handwritten word scrawled across his chest: “KILLER.” He smirked throughout the proceedings, snickering even as victims’ families stood and poured out their hearts. Against his lawyer’s advice, he turned toward the families and offered a single statement:
“The hand that pulled the trigger that killed your sons now masturbates to the memory. F–- all of you.” Then he pierced the air with his middle finger.
Gasps and a few sobs filled the room.
Lane’s lawyer, Ian Friedman, was just as shocked as everyone else in the room. He’s been a criminal defense lawyer for 15 years but never seen anything like this.
“People think criminal lawyers don’t feel or aren’t affected like everyone else,” he told me in a phone interview shortly after the hearing. “That’s not true. I had no idea he was wearing that T-shirt under his shirt.”
He paused and apologized for needing a moment to collect his thoughts. “That was a horrific courtroom to be sitting in today. The Constitution has to be upheld. Due process has to be upheld. That’s my job. But there’s no way you aren’t affected when something like that happens. I hope I never again have to see that in a courtroom or anywhere else.”
Judge David Fuhry of Geauga County Court of Common Pleas later issued a statement saying that had he noticed the T-shirt, he would have ordered Lane to remove it.
It didn’t take long for various news sources to post video of Lane’s courtroom behavior. I stared at my computer screen, speechless. So alarming, those ugly thoughts swimming in my mind.
Like so many here in Ohio, I wanted Lane to be a broken boy, sobbing over the damage he could not undo. At the very least, I wanted him to be the silent, dazed defendant we’d seen before. Instead, he did everything he could to incite our hate.
Mission accomplished. After Lane was sentenced to life in prison without parole, Facebook and Twitter erupted with vile scenarios of what some hope lies ahead for the unrepentant murderer. Nothing like the Internet to remind us that absent self-vigilance, we can become the monsters we claim to condemn.
I hear the reprimand and guiltily agree: This isn’t about us bystanders, and it surely isn’t about me. The children who died are irreplaceable; their families are inconsolable.
The surviving victims and family members are the only ones who justly wrestle with how to forgive.
Still, there is work for all of us to do. Our response to Lane’s monstrous behavior determines our future, too. We must always consider hate’s consequence on our own hearts.
I can speak only for myself. I never will know why a troubled boy named T.J. Lane killed those innocent teens in Chardon, Ohio.
But I do know that I must pray for his tortured soul, and I must mean it.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.