The Mother of the New Orleans Girl Who Shot Herself Will Face Murder Charges. Here’s Why That’s Wrong.

Crime
A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
June 25 2013 1:39 PM

The Mother of the New Orleans Girl Who Shot Herself Will Face Murder Charges. Here’s Why That’s Wrong.

Laderika Smith
Laderika Smith

Courtesy Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office

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On Sunday a 5-year-old New Orleans girl shot and killed herself with a .38-caliber revolver while her mother was out at the store. On Monday authorities in New Orleans announced that the mother, 28-year-old Laderika Smith, would be charged with second-degree murder—an offense that, under Louisiana state law, is punishable by life imprisonment at hard labor with no chance of parole. Yesterday I wrote that I wasn’t yet sure what to think about the charges against Smith. Now, I’m sure: This is ridiculously severe. Justice will not be served if Smith is convicted.

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I’m glad Smith is being held accountable for her daughter’s death. Parents who allow guns into their homes need to bear responsibility for what their children do with those guns. While initial reports made it seem like the gun belonged to Smith, it now appears that the gun may have belonged to a family friend who was temporarily storing it at Smith’s house. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Smith allowed the gun into her house. She’s responsible for what happened with it.

But “bearing responsibility” doesn’t mean “lock her up and throw away the key.” The charges and potential sentence here are wildly inappropriate. Before she was charged with second-degree murder, according to the Times-Picayune, Smith was charged with cruelty to a juvenile, which, under Louisiana state law, is defined as “intentional or criminally negligent mistreatment or neglect by anyone seventeen years of age or older of any child under the age of seventeen whereby unjustifiable pain or suffering is caused to said child.” Once Smith’s daughter died, the authorities upgraded the charge to second-degree murder, which can be applied “when the offender is engaged in the perpetration or attempted perpetration of” a variety of offenses, including cruelty to a juvenile. A person convicted of second-degree murder in Louisiana gets a mandatory life sentence.

Smith did not deliberately abuse her daughter. She did not actively participate in her death. She was criminally negligent in storing a firearm, and her daughter died as a result. Louisiana state laws allow people to be charged with negligent homicide, an offense that carries a maximum five-year sentence, which is on par with the sentences received by other parents in other states whose children accidentally shot themselves.

The fact that Smith might get life in prison shows that the state of Louisiana has no idea how to handle cases like this. There are much better ways to punish parents like Smith. They’re called child access prevention laws, and they exist to help states appropriately punish adults who give children access to firearms, without—as Louisiana has done here—resorting to charges that don’t fit the crime. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 27 states plus Washington, D.C., have these laws on the books. Louisiana does not.

Child access prevention laws save lives; the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s website cites a study which “found that in twelve states where such laws had been in effect for at least one year, unintentional firearm deaths fell by 23% from 1990-94 among children under 15 years of age.” What’s more, they make a clear statement that gun safety is a public concern, not just a private matter, and that failing to observe simple, common-sense safety standards around children ought to be treated as a crime. That should be enough. Prosecute Laderika Smith for that, not some trumped-up, misapplied murder charge. That’s not justice.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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