WILLOUGHBY, Ohio — On a day when Chardon High School shooting victims and their families were supposed to get the closure they needed, convicted triple murderer Thomas Lane III was able to literally give them the middle finger in a public courtroom.
If that weren't enough, Lane — also known as "T.J." — was permitted to wear a white T-shirt with the word "killer" on it throughout the more than one-hour long hearing.
Geauga County Common Pleas Judge David L. Fuhry has received nationwide criticism for his handling of Lane's sentencing.
But legal experts and those close to the case say there is no reason to doubt Fuhry's claims that he could not see the writing on the shirt from where he sat on the bench.
"I do not doubt that had he seen it he would have halted the proceedings and put the (dress) shirt back on," said presiding Geauga County Common Pleas Judge Forrest W. Burt. "For those people who could see the young man, I'm assuming they were in too much shock to tell the bailiff. She couldn't have seen it from where she sits."
Nobody from Fuhry's court returned a call seeking comment.
Other officials did see the shirt though, including Geauga County Sheriff Daniel McClelland.
"The sheriff's impression is that it's the judge's courtroom," said sheriff's Lt. John Hiscox. "They are the person of authority there. The prosecutor was sitting right across from T.J. Lane, so he would have seen it too. But what would you have done? The sheriff couldn't just stand up and say, ' Hey! What about his shirt?' "
Lane was able to secretly write on the shirt with an inmate-issued rubber pen that defendants use in their cells to write letters to family and friends, Hiscox said.
"The sheriff believes he wrote on his T-shirt in the middle of the night," Hiscox said. "He put the T-shirt on under his jail uniform (that morning). They go into a bathroom to change into his court clothes. He's still wearing the T-shirt underneath. He comes out, puts on his court clothes and you still don't see it. They get patted down once they put their street clothes back on. But you're not looking for writing on a shirt."
Jonathan Entin, professor of law and political science at Case Western University in Cleveland, said he believes the judge would have ordered Lane to put his dress shirt back on if he would have known.
"Could he have been found in contempt? Sure. But that's a pretty extreme step. That's really a last resort," Entin said. "They would have had to hold a contempt hearing at a later date. Contempt is when the judge says, ' This is hopeless. I can't get this person to behave.' "
But many people are questioning why Lane was not handcuffed coming into court, which made it easy for him to take off his dress shirt as the judge was entering.
"There was probably some indication that things were going to be a little bit strange once he took his dress shirt off, which the judge apparently could not see," Entin said. "But you don't shackle somebody unless you think the person poses a danger. He was searched. They had the place sufficiently secure. Even if he would have been shackled, he would not have been able to give the finger as easily, but he still would have said what he said."
Before sticking up his middle finger, Lane gave a brief statement: "The hand that pulled the trigger that killed your sons now masturbates to the memory. (expletive) all of you."
And defendants have the right to say almost whatever they want at their sentencings.
"As horrendous as what he said and did was, the judge kind of has to let this play out as long as he's not actually threatening to harm somebody," Entin added. "If he's just making a complete fool of himself, that's his call. He's got a right to do that. The only way to keep him from saying what he said would be to gag him, and it's extraordinary to gag a defendant."
"He spoke for less than a minute. If he'd gone on at any length, maybe the judge could have considered something else. Legally, it would have been pretty dicey for the judge to cut him off on a short statement."
"But his lawyers must have been cringing. There are certain things the lawyers don't want the client to do. Look, he's essentially confirmed why he's going away forever."
Lane, 18, was sentenced to three life terms without parole Tuesday for shooting six students — three fatally — on Feb. 27, 2012.
He spoke against his lawyers' advice and refused to let them put on any mitigating evidence to argue in favor of parole eligibility.
"Everyone in that courtroom did the very best they could, including the judge," said Ian Friedman, one of Lane's three defense attorneys. "No one could have prepared for what happened."
Hiscox said deputies had no reason to shackle Lane coming in to court.
"In all the previous experiences, he was the perfect gentleman, ' Yes sir, no sir,' " he said. "Nobody in their wildest dreams suspected that. The shirt and the statements that were made are totally disgusting. The restraint the family members who heard those comments had was unbelievable. They did an admirable job in the courtroom."
But even if Fuhry could not see the writing, technically he could have ordered Lane to put his dress shirt back on anyway.
According to the Court's own trial guidelines, all parties and witnesses must dress appropriately. Shorts, sweatshirts, coats, hats and T-shirts are not permitted.
Burt said that rule often is ignored, though.
"They bring defendants in (from jail) in all sorts of apparel," the judge said. "We tend to go with what they have on. But nothing has happened before like this. When you're coming to be sentenced, we figure if you're foolish enough to show up in a T-shirt, get ready for the court to react. But you have to be careful when you're on the bench that you don't react with anger. You never want the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court to think you sentenced out of anger."
Burt added that Lane's antics ended up doing him more harm in the end.
"It makes a difference what the victims say, what the defendants say," Burt said. "I'm not sure what Judge Fuhry was going to do before, but after that, there could be little doubt what T.J. Lane would receive as a sentence.
"This is the young man's last chance to show what a tough guy he is. It's pitiful. Any sympathy anyone may have had for him he took away. Maybe that was his goal. He will have a lifetime to think about it."