A Maryland teenager who was critically shot inside a school bathroom is slowly improving after eight operations, his mother said this week, as the criminal case against a fellow Magruder High School student begins to take shape.
Her son, DeAndre, was 15 when he was shot last month and recently turned 16. Doctors removed his breathing tube on Monday, and asked him if he could say anything. “Hey,” he said quietly, followed by “water,” his mom recalled.
Court documents filed in the case, meanwhile, disclosed new details of the investigation, including that the student arrested in the case, Steven Alston Jr., 17, told detectives he brought his home-assembled “ghost gun” to school last month because he was scared of being “jumped.” Alston also asserted that he pulled out his gun in the bathroom to ward off a fight when a tussle over the weapon caused him to accidentally pull the trigger.
Alston has been charged as an adult with attempted second-degree murder and four other counts, according to an indictment handed up by a Montgomery County grand jury. That panel essentially adopted charges filed last month by county police. The teenager remains detained.
Alston’s attorney said he will try to get the case moved to juvenile court, which is more focused on rehabilitation and tends to involve shorter sentences.
“Given our understanding of the circumstances of the case, it’s appropriate that the matter be resolved in juvenile court,” said the attorney, David Felsen, declining to comment further.
The shooting, which put Magruder on lockdown, erupted among broad concerns over school violence, and rattled students and parents throughout the suburban county of 1.1 million just outside Washington.
Authorities have said Alston ordered gun parts online, put the weapon together with a friend and brought it to school on Jan. 21. Just before 1 p.m., police said, he went into a bathroom knowing there was to be a confrontation with another student. Once there, Alston allegedly pulled the gun from his waistband and pointed it at the head of DeAndre Thomas, who police say tried to push it away as Alston shot him in the pelvis.
A security guard making normal rounds found Thomas in the bathroom moments later. He was treated by a school nurse as paramedics were called and rushed him to the hospital.
Thomas’s mother said a call from the school summoned her to the hospital. Doctors there told her that DeAndre — who is 5 feet 11 inches tall and 125 pounds — had lost a lot of blood. They warned her that injuries like those he suffered were often fatal but said he had youth on his side and was fighting.
“I was totally scared,” his mother said. “I thought I was going to lose my baby.”
After the shooting, Alston allegedly left the bathroom and slipped into a classroom as Magruder went into lockdown. He was arrested there two hours later, in front of other students, by SWAT officers. Alston was taken to a nearby police station and spoke to detectives.
Court records filed in Montgomery County say the teen asserted he pulled out the gun to ward off a fight.
“Alston advised he took the handgun to school because he was worried he was going to be jumped,” detectives wrote, using the term for a group attack. “Alston said he went to the restroom where the victim and his friends were waiting. Alston did not want to fight so he pulled the gun, hoping to scare the victim and his friends away.”
It is unclear from the charging document if Alston admitted to police he knew there was a confrontation looming specifically at that moment in the bathroom or if he carried the gun worried about being confronted at any time. That kind of foreknowledge, according to veteran defense attorneys, will probably be a key factor in the case.
“If he took his gun into the bathroom knowing the others were in there, that’s a problem for him,” said David Moyse, one of four defense lawyers who reviewed the charging document at the request of The Washington Post.
Moyse said Maryland law generally holds that those who claim self-defense must first show they tried to avoid a pending confrontation if possible.
Moyse cautioned that without being privy to other evidence in the case, it’s difficult to gauge how a trial might play out. But he and others sketched out broad factors at play.
“The history between all of the young people in the restroom will help determine the reasonableness, or lack thereof, of Mr. Alston’s actions,” attorney Jason Downs said. “This tragedy didn’t occur in a vacuum.”
Downs said Alston’s statements to detectives raise the specter of what is known in Maryland as “imperfect self-defense.” That holds that a jury need only determine a person thought he was in grave danger even if the belief wasn’t “objectively reasonable.”
Attorneys said that if Alston were able to show, for example, that he’d been directly threatened in the past by any of the others in the bathroom, or if once in the bathroom other students stopped him from being able to leave, the teen could establish reasonable grounds that he feared for his safety.
Without such additional evidence, though, Alston faces an uphill climb, attorney Morgan Leigh said. “I think they’re going to have a hard time with imperfect self-defense,” she said. “It looks like, by his own actions, he brought his gun into a fight.”
A more favorable scenario to Alston, she said, would be if he had been surprised in the bathroom. “But this doesn’t seem like he came out of the stall and five guys were suddenly there,” Leigh said.
Alston’s own statements to detectives based on the charging documents, Leigh noted, appear to have him admitting to several weapons violations, including bringing a handgun onto school grounds and possessing one as a minor.
Defense lawyer Mark Anderson, until recently a prosecutor, said Alston’s actions after arriving inside the bathroom could put him on firmer footing than his decision to go there. The attorney noted that even if Alston were convicted, his statements to detectives might help reduce his punishment.
“There’s something to work with here,” he said. “But it seems more mitigation than exoneration.”
Karen Thomas and Robinson Rowe, an attorney for the family, declined to speak specifically about the incident, citing the ongoing investigation by the police. Thomas expects her son to be hospitalized for another two or three weeks, followed by a stay in a rehabilitation center. “Physically, I think he will bounce back,” she said.
The mental scars, she said, probably will last much longer.
“He is extremely traumatized by what happened,” she said. “We are trying to keep him in good spirits and focused on getting better.”