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Anthony “T.J.” Solomon Jr. goes before a judge on Wednesday with an unusual plea arrangement: He’s pleading guilty and guilty but mentally ill. On May 20, 1999, Solomon, then 15, opened fire with a .22 rifle and .357 magnum handgun at Heritage High School in Conyers, Ga. The incident led to a 29-count indictment against Solomon on multiple charges of aggravated assault, cruelty to children and weapons offenses. He’s being tried as an adult and faces up to 211 years in prison in the incident, which didn’t result in lasting injuries to any of the victims. Defense attorney Edward T.M. Garland made the unusual move of entering both pleas before Rockdale County Chief Superior Court Judge Sidney L. Nation. He says he hopes it will result in the judge looking closely at Solomon’s mental condition and considering it as a mitigating circumstance. The defense has maintained throughout the case that Solomon suffers from severe mental and emotional problems and fought to keep the case under the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system. Garland’s move leaves it up to the judge which plea to accept. When Nation accepted the pleas he said he expected to hear “spirited argument” from both sides but that the focus would be on the “mental status of the young man when the incident occurred.” Robert F. Mumford, a former district attorney in Rockdale County and now in private practice with the firm of Mumford, Myers & Mooney, said the double plea is a good tactical decision. “I believe there was a lot of good up-front investigation on the part of the sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office which helped eliminate some of the defense options, such as not guilty by reason of insanity,” says Mumford. “The two pleas allows the case to move forward but still gives the defense the opportunity to present its case for mental illness and ask the court for mercy.” UNDERGONE EVALUATIONS Solomon has undergone mental evaluations from defense and prosecution experts, as well as a third expert appointed by the court; this testimony is expected to be key. Rockdale County District Attorney Richard R. Read is also likely to call victims and members of their families to offer testimony about how they have suffered. Read declined to comment on the case. Under Georgia’s definition of guilty but mentally ill, “mentally ill means having a disorder of thought or mood which significantly impairs judgment, behavior, capacity to recognize reality, or ability to cope with the ordinary demands of life.” (O.C.G.A. 17-7-131 (a) (2)) However, that same statute notes that “mental illness shall not include a mental state manifested only by repeated unlawful or antisocial conduct.” While there have been no reports that Solomon had previous brushes with the law, the investigation following the shooting revealed that the teen did identify himself with a group of self-described social outcasts, known as the Trenchcoat Mafia, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Two members of the group went on a shooting spree in April 1999 and killed 13 people before committing suicide. The shootings at Heritage took place one month to the day after Columbine. Ordinarily, a guilty but mentally ill plea requires the state to prove guilt and the defense to prove mental illness. But since Solomon has also entered a separate plea of guilty, the focus of Wednesday’s hearing will be entirely on his mental state. Removing a determination of guilt or innocence in the hearing gives the defense an advantage, according to D. Brandon Hornsby, a former state and federal prosecutor who is now a trial lawyer for the firm of Alembik, Fine & Callner. It “allows the defense to start from a point of strength in bringing evidence to the court,” he says. “I believe this allows the defense to maintain considerable credibility with the court,” says Hornsby. “They are admitting guilt to the acts, so the court does not have to concern itself with the question of guilt or innocence, which allows the focus of the court to center on the evidence surrounding the mental condition of the defendant and not on various collateral issues.” Michael Shapiro, executive director of the Indigent Defense Council, also says Garland’s tactic may prove effective. “I’d say what the defense has done is pretty rare, but it is my understanding that they have maintained all along that the young man suffers from some mental problems,” says Shapiro. “In a case like this I believe the community is looking for, and wants, closure,” says Shapiro. “I think this was one way for the case to move forward to a resolution with all due speed, yet it still offers the defense the best opportunity to bring evidence before the court that the defendant has problems.”

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