OAKLAND -- A 16-year-old boy accused of setting a skirt-wearing teen on fire on an AC Transit bus is not homophobic, his lawyer said Friday after winning a chance in court to fight a decision to try the boy as an adult.
Richard Thomas is accused of setting 18-year-old Luke "Sasha" Fleischman, who was asleep, on fire and causing second- and third-degree burns in Oakland Nov. 4. Police and prosecutors have said Thomas told them he did it because he is homophobic.
"We're trying to figure out how he admitted to being homophobic," his lawyer, William Du Bois, said outside court. "He can't even spell it. He has members of his family who are gay. We think they browbeat him."
Fleischman, a senior at Maybeck High School in Berkeley who is recovering from his injuries, is expected to undergo massive skin grafting and a lengthy recovery period, according to his mother, Debbie Crandall.
Fleischman does not identify as male or female and often wears a skirt, according to friends and family.
On Friday, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Eric Labowitz granted Du Bois, a Nov. 26 hearing where he will challenge the constitutionality of the district attorney's decision to try the Oakland High School student as an adult.
Thomas has been charged with aggravated mayhem and assault with means likely to produce great bodily injury, both felonies that include two hate crime enhancements. If convicted, he could go to prison for life.
He has not yet entered a plea.
Du Bois said Thomas is "extremely remorseful" and has written letters to the Fleischman family apologizing for lighting him on fire.
Thomas' mother and several friends and family members attended the hearing Friday.
Thomas' mother, who appeared to be praying during the hearing, would only say "God bless you" when asked to comment about her son's situation.
On Thursday night, roughly 200 of Fleischman's friends, family and Oakland High School teachers and students spread a message of tolerance and nonviolence by stringing rainbow ribbons from bus and light poles along MacArthur Boulevard on the same 57 bus line where he was set on fire. The ribbons are a universal symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender pride. Fleischman's parents said the march and tying the ribbons is a symbol of "NoH8, acceptance and diversity."
Du Bois said Thomas, who remains in custody, "is somewhat overwhelmed and extremely remorseful."
He challenged the district attorney's hate crime charge, saying what Thomas did was "an extremely ill-considered prank that went terribly wrong."
Du Bois said the incident is on videotape, but he has not yet seen it. He said police took the video to the principal at Oakland High School and asked him to identify the suspect, who turned out to be Thomas. He was arrested at Oakland High School Nov. 5.
Thomas' statement to police about the crime and why he did it is also on tape, Du Bois said.
Du Bois described Thomas as a boy who, because of his "educational challenges became kind of a class clown who adopted a prankster-like quality."
And now he regrets what he did.
"He would like Sasha to know that with every fiber of his being, he is sorry," Du Bois said.
Contact Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley.