Distraught family members sit in the back row of the courthouse and listen to the proceedings as Elena Janelle Rendell makes her first court appearance.
Pensacola, Florida (PNJ) -- Draped in a baggy prison jumpsuit, 17-year-old Elena Janelle Rendell stared straight ahead, expressionless, in the front row of juvenile court Thursday afternoon.
About midnight the night before, her sister, 14-year-old Christina Sneary, died from a gunshot wound to her neck - a shot Rendell is accused of firing.
Rendell was already in Sheriff's Office custody when her sister died, 10 hours after she was shot. As Rendell sat in court, she didn't know.
Then, court officials escorted Rendell from the courtroom to tell her the tragic news.
Her family sobbed in the back row as she was escorted back in.
Rendell's expression was unchanged. She stared ahead.
She will be charged as an adult with manslaughter with a firearm, a second-degree felony. She initially was charged with aggravated battery as a juvenile, but the charges were upgraded Thursday morning in the wake of her sister's death at Sacred Heart Hospital.
She is accused of shooting her sister in the neck Wednesday afternoon after the two got into an argument about a cellphone at their home in the 7600 block of Kipling Street in Ferry Pass.
The exact relationship of the two girls is not clear. The Escambia County Sheriff's Office reported them to be foster sisters; other reports say they were half-sisters or were adopted, perhaps after being in foster care.
A slight teen with highlight-streaked short hair, Rendell was dwarfed by larger juvenile offenders seated to her left and right at the juvenile court appearance.
When called forward, she answered Circuit Judge Ross Goodman's questions with quiet "yes" and "no" responses.
At one point, without turning her head, she cast a quick glance at her emotional family members, who filled the entire back row of the courtroom.
One of the family members, a middle-age man, cradled his head in his hands and sobbed quietly. Another clutched a Bible.
Family members declined to talk to reporters, but they spoke quietly with Assistant State Attorney John Molchan during the hearing.
"At this point, they're crushed," Molchan said. "It's certainly a horrific tragedy."
Rendell's brother, Army Sgt. Jason Rendell, pleaded with Goodman to release his younger sister into his custody.
"She listens to me. She respects me. I can deal with her," he told the judge.
Goodman denied the request and set the girl's bond at $300,000.
She will be transferred from the Juvenile Detention Center to the Escambia County Jail, where she will be held in a special unit away from the general inmate population, Molchan said.
Her next court appearance is Aug. 18 in Escambia County Circuit Court.
According to an arrest report released Thursday afternoon, Rendell and her sister were at home when they began to argue over a cellphone. During the argument, Rendell ran into a bedroom and retrieved a 9 mm handgun from the top of a shelf.
Rendell then pointed the handgun at her sister and fired a single gunshot, striking her in the neck.
Witnesses said Rendell ran from the house after the shooting, shouting for help and saying that her sister had been shot.
She remained on the scene, and was taken into custody by deputies without incident.
When setting Rendell's bond, Judge Goodman said the teen told investigators that she stayed at the scene because the shooting was an accident. She told investigators she would have attempted to flee if she thought she would be charged with a crime, Goodman said.
Molchan said Rendell was charged as an adult because the crime involved a firearm. If convicted, she could face up to life in prison.
But Molchan said several factors could lead to a lesser sentence, including Rendell's age, her mental state and whether the shooting was an accident.
"We're still in the very preliminary stages of this," he said. "We certainly are going to take into account everything in this case."
Travis Griggs, Pensacola News Journal