COLUMBIA, Tenn., July 31 -- The murder conspiracy trial of a Tennessee teenager charged in the slaying of two people and the wounding of a third at his high school last fall got underway Wednesday with opening statements. Stephen Abbott, 18, of Lynville, Tenn., is charged with two counts of criminal responsibility for first-degree murder in connection with the Nov. 15 shooting rampage at Richland High School. Teacher Carolyn Foster and student Diane Collins were killed and teacher Carol Yancey was wounded when Abbott's friend, Jamie Rouse, allegedly opened fire with a rifle on campus. The trial was moved to Columbia, Tenn., because of extensive pre- trial publicity. Investigators said Rouse intended to kill football coach Ron Shirey but Collins, who was nearby, was struck instead. He faces two counts of first-degree murder and one of attempted murder and is to be tried later. Abbott was charged with helping to draw up what investigators said was planned as the slaying of several teachers. 'It is just like aiding and abetting,' said Giles County District Attorney Mike Bottoms. 'Under the law you have someone who assists and contributes to (a crime) in any way. They can be charged with criminal responsibility, and that's what he's charged with.' Abbott's defense attorney, Larry Roberts, was being paid by an unidentified benefactor. 'I can't tell you who is paying for his defense, but I can tell you this person thinks this boy is about to be railroaded,' Roberts said. 'They felt it was important enough to make certain he had a fighting chance.'
Although his friend is alleged to be the triggerman, Abbott could be sent to prison for life if convicted of helping plan the shootings. Under Tennessee law, a juvenile under the age of 18 cannot receive the death penalty even if convicted of first-degree murder. Had the case been left in juvenile court, Rouse and Abbot could have escaped with no more than a two-year prison term. The state planned to introduce Abbott's alleged confession during the trial, but the defendant's attorney said prosecutors would have a hard time convicting him. 'Stephen Abbott never believed Rouse was going to do anything, and when he realized Jamie was going to do this horrible thing...it was simply too late to stop it,' Roberts contended. Outside the courthouse, family friend Dena Ray supported Roberts' contention. 'He's scared. I mean, just look at this child,' said Ray. 'He's young and intimidated. He couldn't stop that kid (Rouse). He didn't take him seriously.'