The Courier, Joshua Mashon, Associated Press
Colton Harvey leaves the Pope County Courthouse in Russellville Wednesday, June 6, 2012. The 15-year-old, charged as an adult with shooting his older sister three times in the head in January as she slept at their rural Arkansas home, pleaded guilty Wednesday to second-degree murder in exchange for a 45-year prison term.

RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. — A 15-year-old boy accused of shooting his older sister three times in the head as she slept at their rural Arkansas home pleaded guilty Wednesday to second-degree murder in exchange for a 45-year prison term.

Colton Harvey was charged as an adult in the January killing of 16-year-old Candace Harvey. Prosecutors said Candace was asleep in her bed when her brother fired the shots.

"You stated that you murdered your sister. Is that correct?" Judge William Pearson asked Harvey, a lanky blond teen with his hands cuffed and feet shackled.

Harvey paused, then almost whispered in response: "Yes, sir."

The boy teared up as he addressed the judge, at one point raising his handcuffed hands to his face so he could dab his eyes with a tissue. He told Pearson he used a rifle to kill Candace.

Pearson sentenced Harvey to 30 years for second-degree murder plus 15 more because he used a gun. Prosecutors initially charged Harvey with first-degree murder, which has a maximum penalty of life in prison with the possibility of parole. Life without parole is reserved for capital murder cases, the prosecutor said.

"How far did you get in school?" Pearson asked Harvey, who responded so quietly that the judge had to repeat some of his answers.

As Harvey replied, "ninth grade," his mother sobbed.

Authorities said Harvey likely killed his sister one January morning after their parents left to go grocery shopping about 40 miles away. The sheriff said the boy seemed remorseful and had tears in his eyes when he turned himself in that same morning.

Investigators found his sister's body in a bedroom at the family's home near Ozark, a town of about 3,600 roughly 120 miles northwest of Little Rock.

But the question of why Harvey shot his sister remained unanswered.

"He never did give what I would consider to be a clear motive," the prosecutor, David Gibbons, said after the hearing.

Harvey's attorney, Bill James, pointed out that there's a history of mental illness in Harvey's family, but he said that an expert wasn't able to give him a diagnosis because of his age.

"Every time I've ever seen him, he's cried," James said. "And it's not, 'Woe is me.' It's about what he's done to his mom and what he's done to his family."

James said the teen never had any run-ins with the law before the shooting.

"I think his biggest problem was talking in class prior to this," James said.

Harvey will head to a county jail until he's transferred to the Department of Youth Services, where he'll remain at least until he turns 16, James said. He can head to a state prison after that. A prison spokeswoman didn't immediately return a call for comment.

Since January, Harvey has been treated as both a child and as an adult. He stood alone in front of the judge during his first court appearance. Then, that same judge — Pearson — sealed his court record and barred attorneys from talking publicly about the case, lest it slide into juvenile court where proceedings are confidential. The judge undid those orders Wednesday after Harvey pleaded guilty to the adult charge, but the court records weren't immediately available.

James said he had planned to ask the judge to move the case to juvenile court if the plea deal hadn't gone through. But he conceded that the judge most likely would have denied that request.

"Three shots to the head for no apparent reason is a pretty good reason to treat a person as an adult," Gibbons, the prosecutor, said.

Harvey's mother has cried throughout the proceedings and his parents were aware of the ramifications of the plea deal, he said.

"The situation doesn't lend itself for anybody to be happy," Gibbons said. "If there was somebody happy, absolutely happy, then an injustice would have been done."

Follow Jeannie Nuss at