… D.A. talking tough, but proof will be even tougher
A major school shooting was averted recently in Cambria County, Pa., according to the county D.A. Police have charged two teenagers, one a student and the other a former student, at Westmont Hilltop High School, with some serious crimes.
However, as a defense attorney for one of the boys noted, there is little “there” there. In other words, the D.A. has scant evidence except for some ghost weapons that were discovered at the home of one of the boys.
Here is the background of the case,
Cambria County District Attorney Greg Neugebauer said two local teens face felony charges, including conspiracy to commit terrorism, in connection with a security breach at Westmont Hilltop High School.
Neugebauer said Logan J. Pringle, 17, of Conemaugh Township, Somerset County, and Preston R. Hinebaugh, 16, of Upper Yoder Township, Cambria County, were charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism, a first-degree felony; conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, a first-degree felony; and attempt to commit aggravated assault.
Hinebaugh was also charged with possession of firearm by a minor, a first-degree misdemeanor.
Joshua Byers, “Cambria D.A. announces felony charges against 2 teens following security breach at Westmont Hilltop High School,” Tribune-Democrat, December 12, 2021
The young men will be tried as adults, but that will not alleviate some of the problems the prosecutors may face.
In addition, the two were being accused of putting together assault rifles in one of their homes,
Five weapons were seized from Hinebaugh – one pump-action rifle and four AR-15 style semi-automatic rifles, according to Hess.
Hess said the police can “prove through our investigation” that Hinebaugh “had access and had control of at least two of those guns … at different times.”
The AR-15s were allegedly “ghost guns,” meaning they were untraceable firearms not made by a manufacturer and without serial numbers.
“Those guns were made and put together by somebody in the Hinebaugh family,” Hess alleged.
Dave Sutor, “Authorities: ‘Ghost guns’ among 5 weapons seized as teens charged in Westmont Hilltop school security breach,” Tribune-Democrat, December 12, 2021
What are the D.A.’s problems?
Neugebauer is a novice prosecutor who had less than three years prosecutorial experience prior to be taking office last year, according to his bio on LinkedIn. He will have his hands full with this case. He has been a lawyer just over ten years, and most of that was in private practice.
First, proving conspiracy in court in any case is very difficult, and these two never actually took any action. It was all in the planning stages, and how much actual information they have that this was going to be an attack on the high school is not clear.
Second, he may be way in over his head with any kind of terrorism case. To my knowledge, no such case has ever been brought by any Cambria County D.A.
The only charges that could be certain to stick would be trespassing since Pringle was forbidden to be on school property, and Hinebaugh allowed him to enter the school last week.
Third, having anyone convicted of a gun offense in Cambria County is problematic. It has become much more conservative after being a Democratic bastion. Many hunters are in the county, and they believe strongly in gun rights. Consequently, this case should be moved out of the county.
Last, some of the criminal information obtained from one of the boys was done without his lawyer present, which could cause problems.
Should refer this to the Feds
If the newly-elected D.A. were to lose these cases, he might be the first one-term D.A. in the county in many years. This will be a high-pressure case to win.
The smart choice would be to allow the federal prosecutors to take the ghost gun cases and the terrorism component to Pittsburgh and charge them there. The chances of a conviction would be more likely in the city with veteran prosecutors.
However, most local police and prosecutors are very provincial and dislike having state police of the FBI or federal prosecutors take over what cases they deem to be their own.
The Kyle Rittenhouse precedent
What should make the prosecutor vary is what happened in Wisconsin when a young man about the same age brought assault weapons across state lines and killed two men and seriously injured another.
And they found his innocent.
Imagine how hard a conviction this is going to be without any shootings or violence.
And the people of Westmont are fearful and angry.
Westmont is a quality school district with many wealthy people living there. They want to ensure that their children are safe. Losing a case like this, or having them convicted of minor crimes will create a tremendous amount of anger in the community.
In reality, I hope that I am wrong, but I have about zero confidence in the American justice system any longer.