WARSAW, Ind. — Paul Gingerich, who entered prison at age 12 for his role in killing a friend’s stepfather and who has spent nearly six years locked up, could be returned home to live with his mother within four months.
Gingerich will remain under electronic monitoring through April 2020, and on probation for 10 years after that, but his stay in prison could end in February after a judge modified his sentence Friday.
Gingerich, who is believed to be the youngest person in Indiana ever sentenced as an adult, went to jail in 2010 as a scrawny sixth-grader with a baby face. He appeared in court Friday still with the baby face but, at 18, standing 6 feet tall and with broad shoulders. In court Friday, he read a statement about his remorse for his role in the 2010 death of Phil Danner, and his voice was shaky.
“I know I committed a truly horrible crime and I am sorry for that,” Gingerich said. “I will never stop being sorry and I know sorry will never be enough.”
Danner’s family did not speak to the court, but his sister and daughter offered letters to Judge James Heuer describing what the loss of Danner meant to their families. They asked that Gingerich, who so far has served time only in juvenile facilities, be given an extended stay in an adult prison.
Based on Heuer’s sentence, Gingerich could spend as little as three months at the Correctional Industrial Facility, an adult jail in Pendleton. Even then, he would be in a program for inmates with disabilities. Gingerich has Crohn’s disease, an incurable illness that causes inflammation in the lining of the digestive tract. He’s had multiple surgeries, portions of his colon have been removed and he has worn a colostomy bag.
After the prison time, Gingerich would join a re-entry program in Allen County, where he would live with his mother for a year under what essentially is house arrest, monitored via an ankle bracelet.
Then Gingerich would be transferred to the watchful eye of a community corrections program through April 2020. While he potentially could live elsewhere at that point, he’s most likely to remain with his mother and remain under electronic monitoring, Kosciusko County Prosecutor Dan Hampton said.
Beyond 2020, Gingerich would face 10 years of probation.
“There’s going to be restraints on his liberty,” said Monica Foster, Gingerich’s attorney.
In court, and speaking to the media afterward, Foster argued that Gingerich is worthy of being returned to the outside world. At the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility, where he’s been housed for 5½ years, Gingerich earned a high school diploma, held a job, served as a mentor to other offenders and went through what Foster called “moral recognition therapy.” The latter is group counseling that she said attempts to help young offenders consider moral implications of the choices they make.
Gingerich clearly had a lapse in that area in 2010. He was a sixth-grader with parents in divorce proceedings when he and a friend, 15-year-old Colt Lundy, hatched a plan to drive out west. But Lundy’s stepfather, Phil Danner, stood in their way. Lundy produced a pair of handguns from his home and the boys waited for Danner to walk into his living room. They opened fire, shooting Danner four times.
Lundy, 21, has spent his entire sentence in adult prisons — first at Wabash Valley and now at the Correctional Industrial Facility, where Gingerich is headed. Lundy never filed an appeal and has at least another six years in prison.
Foster, who has defended death row inmates, took up Gingerich’s cause at no cost and, in 2013, won a new trial for him. Gingerich pleaded guilty again, receiving the same 30-year sentence, but this time under the light of a law passed that year that gives judges greater flexibility in sentencing young offenders. Enacted in the wake of Gingerich’s steep sentence as a 12-year-old, it was dubbed “Paul’s Law.”
At least 10 juvenile offenders have had their sentences reviewed in light of Paul’s Law. But Heuer, a Whitley County judge who took the case after Gingerich was awarded the retrial, said this was his first case under the law. He admitted to feeling as if he were in uncharted territory.
This case doesn’t fit any cubby hole or niche I’ve ever dealt with,” Heuer said.
While Heuer set Gingerich on a path to freedom, he warned that any misstep on the outside could again put Gingerich behind bars — and this time in an adult prison.
Foster, who has expressed confidence in Gingerich’s rehabilitation, described him as “a kid with a conscious” whose crime “will weigh on him the rest of his life, as well as it should.” In court, she said Gingerich has had nightmares about the killing of Danner. She considers the sentence to be just, and the outcome a win for Gingerich.
“We kept this 12-year-old boy from ever having to go to an adult facility as a juvenile,” she said, “and when he does go to an adult facility it will be for a short period of time.” Foster said Gingerich’s family is relieved and happy that he could be home soon, but understanding of the pain Danner’s family endures.
Hampton, the Kosciusko County prosecutor, couldn’t bring himself to say that justice had been served. He said Heuer acted within his authority and praised him for keeping Gingerich under the state’s watchful eye for the next 10 to 15 years. But he noted that the Danner family wanted adult prison time for Gingerich.
And what does he expect from Gingerich?
“Paul’s future from here on — we all wish we had a crystal ball,” Hampton said. “We all want to know if what Judge Heuer did today will be the effective measure to make sure the criminal does not re-offend.
"But to that end, we’ll never know.”
Follow Robert King on Twitter: @RbtKing