The prosecution of 10 Wando High School teens in the armed robbery of a Mount Pleasant grocery store took a huge step forward Wednesday when seven of them pleaded guilty to their roles as "lookouts."
But a huge question remains after their sentencing was postponed: Will they receive prison time?
Also unclear is what effect the pleas will have on the cases of two co-defendants implicated in a second holdup as well. Both teens were listed on Wednesday's docket. Neither was in court.
Inside the county Judicial Center, the seven youths said little more than "yes, sir" to Circuit Judge Roger Young in admitting their involvement in the stickup of the Food Lion store on South Morgan's Point Road.
More than 30 people, mostly parents, friends and family, stood in the packed courtroom to watch the proceedings. Some fidgeted. Others exchanged nervous glances. One woman dabbed her eyes with a tissue.
After the teens entered their pleas, sentencing was postponed when their lawyers sought to lessen the severity of their penalties by asking Young to agree to review pre-sentencing reports on each youth.
The reports, to be compiled by state probation officers, will look at everything from family status, psychological profiles and the students' conduct since being arrested. Such reports are commonplace for virtually every criminal convicted in the federal court system but are more rare among defendants in state court. It could take 30 days or longer for them to be completed.
With the guilty pleas on record, only two defendants in the case remain, including the teen accused of entering the Food Lion armed with a pellet gun.
The seven teens in court Wednesday confessed to the Aug. 26, 2006, robbery in which they acted as lookouts in cars parked near the store. A classmate wearing an orange mask and carrying a pellet gun allegedly went inside and forced a store worker to open up a safe. An undetermined amount of money was taken away in a duffel bag.
The group communicated by "walkie-talkies" they purchased at a local retail store along with the mask and gun. They later split the take.
Under the plea offers accepted Wednesday, the more severe charge of armed robbery against six of the seven teens was replaced by charges of conspiracy to commit armed robbery and accessory after the fact of armed robbery.
The maximum penalty for each offense is five years and 15 years, respectively.
When the sentencing date comes, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she will ask for the maximum sentences for each, to run concurrently.
The six originally had been charged with conspiracy and armed robbery, which by itself can draw up to 30 years in state prison. Pleading guilty were: Christopher Cousins, Michael Dawley, Max Hartwell, Graham Stolte, Jackie Washington and Vincent Weiner.
The seventh defendant, Patrick Brown, was considered a late-comer to the conspiracy. He pleaded to accessory after the fact of armed robbery.
Wilson is recommending a youthful offender sentence for Brown that could keep him incarcerated for one to six years.
All the teens involved were between 16 and 18 at the time of their arrests and were charged as adults.
What severity of sentence the teens can expect — and an eighth member of the group who pleaded guilty last week — remains the subject of widespread speculation around the courthouse. Attorneys for some of the teens did not want to make predictions but conceded the threat of prison time is real.
"At the time this happened, I don't think they realized the seriousness of what they were doing," said attorney Michael Uricchio. "But they sure do now."
Since being arrested, most of the teens appear to have continued with their education, either in college, private schools or by being readmitted to Wando. Some also have kept jobs.
As part of their plea deals, the group must also agree to testify against the two other teens whose cases are pending: Sean Shevlino and Michael Anthony. Both are charged with holding up the Food Lion and a separate armed robbery at a Subway restaurant.
Whether the two will go to trial or plead guilty during the January 7 court term remained in question Wednesday.
Wilson told Young that Shevlino and Anthony plan to plead guilty to armed robbery charges. But Anthony's attorney, Bentley Price, said later in the day that his client has not decided whether to accept a plea agreement or proceed to trial. Wilson has offered to recommend a 10-year prison term if the pair pleads guilty to two counts of armed robbery.
Price considers the agreement an ultimatum rather than a serious negotiation because Anthony has little to gain by accepting it.
"It's not an offer. What they have given us is a court date," he said.
Price said his client should be treated as a youthful offender and his attorneys allowed to present mitigating evidence to a judge to help explain some of Anthony's actions.
Price called Anthony one of the more sympathetic figures in the case. He said the teen is "practically an orphan" who has had to depend on the kindness of others for a place to sleep at night.
The woman who was caring for him left for a trip to Europe on the day of his arrest and he spent several days in jail before a friend's mother posted his bail, Price said. He has since bounced around, staying with various people while trying to continue his schooling and work, Price added.
A therapist's assessment found that Anthony doesn't fully appreciate the consequences of his actions, Price said. In his mind, he was just helping his friend, Shevlino, he said. Now, faced with the prospect of prison, his biggest concerns seem to be whether he will have a cell mate and how the food will taste, Price said.
"He just doesn't get it. He doesn't understand at all," he said. "This boy does not belong in an adult prison with criminals. ... He's a great kid. With the right counseling, structure and family this kid can go on to be a very productive member of society."
Representatives of Shevlino have declined comment and could not be reached Thursday.
Wilson told the judge she is prepared to move quickly to trial should the teens choose not to plead guilty.
The case stunned many members of the East Cooper community, in part because several of those arrested were members of the school football team. Some Wando students also suggested the Food Lion robbery was planned to aid Shevlino, who'd temporarily left home after getting in trouble for hosting a party.
Police said that account didn't make sense because the take was reportedly split up among participants.