The teenager accused in the mass stabbing at a high school outside Pittsburgh could face what amounts to a life sentence if he is convicted, an expert on Pennsylvania criminal law said Thursday.
Because the suspect, Alex Hribal, 16, has been charged as an adult, his guilt or innocence would be determined by a criminal jury, not a juvenile court judge, said Daniel Filler, a professor of law at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Hribal’s lawyer could try to get the case into juvenile court, where the harshest penalty would be jail until Hribal turns 21. But the judges who make that call in Pennsylvania are elected, not appointed, and pressure against a lighter sentence would be immense, Filler said.
“You have to recognize that cases that are so high-profile like this really are driven by the public outcry,” he said. “The politics are all against it. Really against this kid.”
Within hours of the rampage, at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, Hribal was charged with four counts of attempted homicide, 21 counts of aggravated assault and one misdemeanor count of carrying a prohibited weapon.
A Westmoreland County on Thursday raised the number of victims to 22 — 21 students and one adult. He said that additional charges would be filed to reflect the new count.
If Hribal were found guilty of the crimes and the judge chose to impose the sentence consecutively, it would be an effective life sentence for the teenager, Filler said.
Charging Hribal as an adult was not a discretionary decision for prosecutors, the professor said. For certain serious crimes, Pennsylvania prosecutors are required to charge teenagers 15 to 17 as adults, he said.
If a lawyer tried to get such a case into juvenile court — again, against extremely long odds — he could argue that the teen is mentally troubled or was subjected to abuse.
The lawyer representing Hribal, Patrick Thomassey, told NBC News on Thursday that there was no evidence that the family was dysfunctional. He did say that he would seek a psychiatric evaluation for Hribal.