A Teenager Is Charged With Involuntary Manslaughter After Unintentionally Shooting His Cousin. The Case Shouldn’t End There.

A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Sept. 6 2013 2:41 PM

A Teenager Is Charged With Involuntary Manslaughter After Unintentionally Shooting His Cousin. The Case Shouldn’t End There.

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A file photo of a semi-automatic pistol.

Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

A Carlsbad, N.M., teenager has been arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter after allegedly shooting and killing his 12-year-old cousin with a handgun that he thought was unloaded. According to KASA.com, these tragic events began when 12-year-old Jeremy Hatfield pointed a BB gun at 15-year-old Michael Schultz, who reciprocated by producing an actual handgun and pulling the trigger. Schultz initially told police that Hatfield had died in a drive-by shooting, before allegedly admitting that he was the one who shot him. Now, he could face up to two years in juvenile detention.

Underage shooters in unintentional shootings like these are not usually charged with crimes, and I suspect Schultz’s initial lies to police—along with his relatively advanced age, as these sorts of shootings go—had a lot to do with why he was charged. While Schultz isn’t entirely blameless here, and while he definitely shouldn’t have told the police such a stupid lie, I don’t think that the charge should stand.

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New Mexico state courts have maintained that “the culpable state of mind for involuntary manslaughter ‘comprehends evidence of an utter irresponsibility on the part of the defendant or of a conscious abandonment of any consideration for … safety.’ ” In other words, to get a conviction, a prosecutor must demonstrate that the defendant really ought to have known better. And yet, children can’t generally be expected to know better, or to realize that they are being dangerously reckless. Teenage brains are still developing, and, because of this, teenagers are prone to impulsive behavior and terrible decisions—like pointing a gun at a cousin. Schultz certainly should have known that that sort of behavior is inappropriate. But did he consciously abandon all safety considerations? I think that’d be hard to prove.

If the involuntary-manslaughter charge against Schultz stands, the case will probably be tried in juvenile court, which is some small consolation, at least. But the case shouldn’t end there. Police do not yet know how Schultz got the gun, though Hatfield’s grandfather apparently said that Schultz may have obtained it from a friend. Whatever the gun’s provenance, its owner ought to face charges, too.

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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