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Seven months ago a shooting shook New Hanover County. Now, a teenager is sentenced to at least four years in prison

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Benjamin Schachtman
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WHQR
From left: District Attorney Ben David, prosecutor Ashton Herring, public defender Brian Moore, Chance Deablo; Judge Thomas Wilson presiding.

Last summer, a shooting at New Hanover High School sent shock waves through the region, inspiring fear and concern, and turning up the volume on a long-neglected issue. Today, prosecutors in Superior Court said the shooter — now 16 — has taken responsibility for his actions.

On the morning of Monday, August 30, 2021, 15-year-old Chance Deablo fired a handgun three times following a massive brawl in the catwalk of the New Hanover High School. One student was hit, wounded in the hand and leg, and suffered injuries that required surgery.

Related: One wounded in shooting at New Hanover High School, one suspect arrested

Deablo was charged with several offenses, including attempted first-degree murder, discharging a firearm on school grounds, and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury — sometimes known as the 'alphabet charge' for its long list of initials, AWDWWITKISI.

During a two-day hearing, Chief District Court Judge J.H. Corpening ruled that Deablo could be tried as an adult; Deablo appealed, but Corpening’s ruling was upheld by Senior Superior Court Judge Phyllis Gorham.

Some have called for Deablo to be held accountable for his actions, while others have used his story as an example of 'community violence' — cycles of violence that extend far beyond the school campus, drawing in issues of systemic inequality, a lack of economic opportunity, and the broad disruptions of the Covid pandemic.

Related — The Newsroom: District Attorney Ben David and Chief District Court Judge Jay Corpening on juvenile justice

Prosecutors' argument

Cases like Deablo’s can take years, but seven months later he appeared in Superior Court before Judge Thomas Wilson. Deablo and his attorney, Brian Moore, agreed to a plea arrangement with prosecutors.

Deablo pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon (the ‘alphabet charge’) and discharging a firearm on school grounds, which together carry a maximum sentence of 290 months.

Prosecutor Ashton Herring presented what the state’s cause would have been at trial, revealing that in the months leading up to the shooting, Deablo had attempted to sell the firearm he ultimately used at New Hanover in exchange for drugs and cash (Herring confirmed later that the firearm was never located following the shooting).

Herring presented the shooting as premeditated, noting that a week prior to the incident, Deablo had been involved in a fight on the first day of school. He was heard telling others involved, “shit is going to be different when I come back.”

Prosecutors described the fight on August 30 as two separate altercations that eventually merged into the giant brawl seen on social media. According to Herring, the fight ended and Deablo walked away, apparently retrieving his firearm, returning, and firing three shots. Given the opportunity to deescalate and instead choosing lethal force would have justified an attempted first-degree murder case, prosecutors implied, especially taken with his earlier comments that things would be 'different’ and his apparent message to his father that he would ‘handle’ the bullying situation.

Herring described at length the ripple effects of the shooting, including a spike in students arrested or detained on potential weapons charges who told law enforcement and court officials that they feared for their safety from retaliatory violence. Herring also noted she had spoken to parents who had withdrawn their students from school and teachers who feared going to work.

District Attorney Ben David later told the press, emphatically, that he wanted to counter the “false narrative,” that Deablo’s actions could be simply ascribed to him being bullied — something his mother has argued passionately at a press conference held days after the shooting. David noted that it was only “bad aim” that kept this incident from being a murder case.

Related: Mother of alleged New Hanover school shooter says her son was violently bullied, NHCS failed to protect him

At the same time, David praised Deablo for “walking like a man,” taking responsibility for his actions – something David called “very rare” – early in the court process. Deablo’s sense of responsibility was cited as one of the reasons to take the attempted murder charge off the table, part of the deal that dramatically reduced the amount of time Deablo faced.

Defense's argument

Moore started his argument by noting that “this isn’t Columbine, this isn’t Sandy Hook,” and pointing out that the shooting would have garnered much less attention from the press, and the general public, had it occurred elsewhere.

Notwithstanding Ben David’s comments, Moore pointed out that Deablo had been beaten up on his first day of school. Moore acknowledged that Deablo was too young to own a gun, and was wrong to bring a gun to school and wrong to fire it, but noted that in the United States people own and carry guns when they feel unsafe quite frequently.

Moore noted that Deablo intended to get his GED and better himself during his incarceration, pointing to the support of his mother, Domanae, who was seated in the courtroom.

Ultimately, Moore argued that the plea deal was the best option for Deablo — but that it was unfortunate that it was the only option. Moore said that “it is a shame” that the justice system has no recourse outside of prison for people in Deablo’s situation.

Sentencing

Judge Wilson expressed regret at having to sentence a young man to prison at all and accepted some of the mitigating factors presented by Moore. Ultimately, Wilson ordered Deablo to serve 48-70 months, with roughly one month already served (prosecutors later clarified that Deablo had been released on bail shortly after his arrest, but had violated his bond release by failing to notify the courts of a faulty ankle monitor).

Wilson made a point echoed later by Ben David, that the courts needed to balance punitive action with habilitation. Wilson referenced the current trial of Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old facing a possible death sentence for the Parkland shooting, to illustrate how serious the charges could have been.

Deablo spoke briefly with his mother — the two said they loved each other, and Chance assured his mother “it will be okay” — and said repeatedly, “my life is not over,” at one point addressing TV news cameras in the courtroom directly.

This was, perhaps, echoing Judge Wilson, who noted that Deablo will be only 20 if he is released after serving the minimum sentence of four years.