A White 17-year-old girl was sentenced Thursday to four years in juvenile detention for planning to stab Georgia churchgoers to death because they were Black. The girl pleaded guilty to attempted murder as part of a plea agreement and was sentenced as a juvenile in Gainesville, Georgia, local news outlets reported.
The girl, who was 16 at the time of her arrest in 2019, sobbed while reading an apology, The Times of Gainesville reported.
She will be on probation for 10 years and must stay at least 150 feet from any African Methodist Episcopal church during that time, the paper reported after Thursday's hearing in Hall County Superior Court. She also must undergo counseling, the newspaper said.
Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish said in November 2019 that Gainesville High School students, school administrators and law officers had worked together to thwart a "potentially horrific incident."
Students told administrators the girl had a notebook with detailed plans to kill worshippers at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Parrish said.
The church has a predominantly Black congregation, Parrish said, adding that investigators determined the church was targeted by the juvenile based on its racial makeup. Gainesville, a city of just over 40,000 people 50 miles northeast of Atlanta, has a population that's about 17% African American.
"She had written down how she wanted to do it, the best way to do it," he said in the 2019 news conference. "She had procured some butcher knives, kitchen knives, to do the attack with and had actually scouted out the location."
The church's pastor Michelle Rizer-Pool told the Atlanta Journal Constitution last year the girl visited her church on the Wednesday before her arrest, but no events were scheduled that night. Bible study is usually held on Wednesday nights, Rizer-Pool said.
According to the Atlanta newspaper, prosecutors said the teen was a follower of white supremacist Dylann Roof, who was convicted of fatally shooting nine Black congregants in 2015 during Bible study at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof told FBI agents he was hoping to start a race war. He is on federal death row.
Thursday, Rizer-Pool told the paper that she is grateful the girl will remain behind bars for now, but that she knows people who are serving much longer sentences on drug possession and theft convictions.
"I guess once the gavel is hit I have to accept it, but the reality is I'm thinking about so many other crimes and people I know who had to suffer (in prison) for something less than attempted murder," she said.
Georgia in June passed a hate crimes bill that mandates enhanced sentences for those convicted of crimes targeting people because of protected characteristics including race. The law was passed amid outrage over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man pursued by two white men and shot dead while jogging through a Brunswick neighborhood on February 23. Georgia had previously been one of only four states with no hate crimes law on its books. The new law, however, is not retroactive to crimes that occurred before its passage.