When 18-year-old Tyell Morton put a blow-up sex doll in a bathroom stall on the last day of school, he didn't expect school officials to call a bomb squad or that he'd be facing up to eight years in prison and a possible felony record.
The senior prank gone awry has raised questions of race, prosecutorial zeal and the post-Columbine mindset in a small Indiana town and around the country, The Indianapolis Star reported in its Tuesday editions.
Legal experts question the appropriateness of the charges against Morton, and law professor Jonathan Turley at George Washington University posed a wider question about Morton's case on his legal blog.
Jail for prank?
"The question is what type of society we are creating when our children have to fear that a prank (could) lead them to jail for almost a decade. What type of citizens are we creating who fear the arbitrary use of criminal charges by their government?"
A janitor at Rushville Consolidated High School saw Morton run away from the school May 31, and security footage showed a person in a hooded sweatshirt and gloves entering the school with a package and leaving five minutes later without it, according to court documents.
Administrators feared explosives, so they locked down the school and called police. K9 dogs and a bomb squad searched the building before finding the sex doll.
"We have reviewed this situation numerous times," Rush County Schools Superintendent John E. Williams told the newspaper last week. "When you have an unknown intruder in the building, delivering an unknown package, we come up with the same conclusion. ... We cannot be too cautious, in this day and age."
Morton was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, and institutional criminal mischief, a felony that carries the potential of two to eight years in prison.
"I know there has been plenty of pranks done at that school," said Morton's mother, Cammie Morton. "I went to that school. When I heard what they was charging him for, my heart just dropped."
Joel Schumm, a professor at the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis, questioned the validity of the charges.
'Don't try to label the kid a felon'
"Their reaction is understandable, but use the school disciplinary process," he said. "Don't try to label the kid a felon for the rest of his life."
The Rush County Prosecutor Philip J. Caviness told The Associated Press that he doesn't intend to seek a prison term for Morton, but said school officials acted appropriately and that the charges are warranted.
"I'm pretty comfortable with the charges that we've filed," he said.
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts focused on Morton's case recently in his nationally syndicated column, suggesting that Morton's case was another example of unfair treatment for a black youth without a wealthy family.
Morton's father brushed off that suggestion when Pitts asked him about it, and Morton's mother declined to discuss that point with The Star.
Morton's attorney, Robert Turner, also downplayed race, suggesting that the size of the small blue-collar city an hour southeast of Indianapolis played a role.
"I don't think they do this sort of thing very often," Turner said. "Had this happened in Indianapolis ... they would not have had this kind of charge filed."
Morton's mother said Tyell Morton wants to attend college, but is worried about the case.
"It's stressful for Tyell," Cammie Morton said. "He doesn't know where his life is going to end up. He has been looking — I'll just put it this way: He's scared."