Accused Socastee HS shooter pleads just as trial is set

Published: Aug. 8, 2011 at 11:56 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 11, 2011 at 8:50 PM EDT
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Accused Socastee High School gunman Christian Helms
Accused Socastee High School gunman Christian Helms

CONWAY, SC (WMBF) - The teenager accused of planning a massacre at Socastee High School in September of 2010 entered a plea Monday, just as his trial was set to get underway.

15-year-old Christian Helms entered an "Alford" plea in the attempted murder charge against him. Horry County Police and prosecutors believe he shot at police officer Eric Karney inside his office at Socastee High School on September 21.

The Alford plea means Helms does not admit to the attempted murder, but he realizes there is enough evidence to convict him of the charge. Helms' defense attorney Russell Long said Helms has always claimed he did not plan to shoot or kill Karney. Helms has said he pulled out a gun and pointed it at Karney because he wanted to take Karney's gun, but when Karney lunged at Helms to disarm him, Helms' gun fired. The gun fired close enough to Karney's head to give him gunpowder burns on the skin of his temple.

Officers say they also found homemade pipes bombs inside Socastee High School on September 21. Helms was charged with three counts of possessing, manufacturing or transporting a destructive device or explosive or parts for damage, injury or death. The prosecution dropped one of those charges just before jury selection. Helms pleaded guilty to the other two bomb-related charges.

Judge Thomas W. Cooper scheduled Helms' sentencing for Wednesday. The attempted murder charge carries a maximum sentence of 30 years, with no minimum sentence. Each bomb-related charges carries a possible sentence of 2 to 15 years.

Assistant Solicitor Alicia Richardson said no deal was reached for the plea. So the solicitor's office has not recommended a sentence in the case.

She said she was not expected a pleas on Monday.

"It's up to the defendant to make that decision of whether he wants to go forward with the trial or whether he wants to enter a plea, but he has that right and the state has the burden of proof," Richardson said. "When it's this late in the game of course everybody is tense and ready for trial, and a lot of effort has gone into it, but he has taken responsibility and admitted what happened."

Long said he and Helms had been trying to decide on whether or not to enter a plea other than not guilty. That discussion continued into Monday he said. However, with the jury pool at hand he said he had to move forward with the jury selection process on Monday. As the day progressed he said he and Helms finally decided the Alford plea and the two guilty please would be in Helms' best interest.

Helms has been in custody at the Juvenile Justice Center in Columbia since last September. In March, a judge ruled Helms would be tried as an adult.

As a result Helms was entitled to a jury trial instead of a trial heard solely by a family court judge. The jury selection process began Monday morning and by mid-afternoon the pool of potential jurors was narrowed to 45. Just before 4 p.m. Judge Cooper, Richardson and Long had select the 12 primary jurors and two alternates.

Potential jurors are asked about their knowledge of the case and if they would be able to be unbiased throughout the trial. Officials must create a safeguard for Helms to get a fair and impartial trial.

WMBF News has provided complete coverage of the case from the day of the shooting through the plea. To see all videos and stories related to the shooting and the case, visit our online category dedicated to the case by clicking here or looking for the "Socastee Shooting Coverage" link on the homepage.

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