Equal or not equal?
Two local shootings, two different criminal charges. From today's Palm Beach Post-
In April, a 19-year-old East Stuart woman was handling a stolen .45-caliber handgun when it went off and her 17-year-old sister was shot in the neck. Kasey Dargis died in her sister's arms.
Stuart police recommended a manslaughter charge, which is a felony. But in November, prosecutors filed a lesser charge of improper display of a firearm, a misdemeanor.
That same month, a 17-year-old Port St. Lucie youth pointed what he thought was an unloaded stolen gun at his 16-year-old best friend and pulled the trigger. Robert Scott Thomas Jr. was shot in the forehead and died the next day.
Port St. Lucie police recommended a manslaughter charge. In December, prosecutors charged Dustin Williams as an adult with manslaughter, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
From those basic descriptions, I can't understand how one is a felony, the other a misdemeanor. Even after reading the lengthier descriptions below, I don't see why both shooters shouldn't be facing the same charges. The decision of what to charge is up to the prosecutor, but when two cases are so similar but have different charges, is justice being served? What do you think?
Two cases. Two teenagers shot by other teens pulling the triggers of weapons that did not belong to them. The result: Two very different criminal charges.
Investigators in the two jurisdictions, both within the 19th Judicial Circuit, thought they could prove that manslaughter was the appropriate charge, but prosecutors who decide what penalties to pursue said it's not that simple.
Chief Assistant State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl said no two set of facts are the same when it comes to evaluating potential criminal charges.
"It can be a single fact that turns the tide on that," he said, noting that he cannot comment on details of pending cases under the rules of legal procedure.
In the Stuart case, according to the case file, Amy Dargis told police she found the Colt .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol in the bushes outside the front door of the apartment she shared on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard with Henry Thompson, a felon.
Dargis said her younger sister was sitting at a computer just inside the doorway, checking her MySpace account on Easter before heading out to a family dinner.
Amy Dargis first told police she was merely holding the weapon in the palm of her hand when it went off, but later agreed with detectives who said it was not possible for the gun to fire under that scenario.
In fact, that handgun is unique in having two external safety mechanisms that are supposed to prevent accidental shootings, but both could have been overridden if the gun was left cocked with the safety nearest the trigger disengaged, experts said.
Dargis still needed to have her finger on the trigger, applying about 7 pounds of pressure, while simultaneously pressing on the rear safety on the pistol grip.
Under questioning by Stuart police, she demonstrated holding the gun and waving it around with her hand.
"I just had it in my hand. I just had it and it went off. It went so fast and I just felt something go 'boom' and my sister said, 'I can't breathe,' " Dargis told police.
A national gun expert, Roy Ruel of Portland, Ore., has consulted on cases throughout the country. He said it's possible Dargis could put enough pressure on the trigger and grip without intending to fire the weapon.
"Seven pounds sounds like a lot, but it really isn't," he said. "I find that story probably credible," assuming someone left the gun in the bushes with the safety off, the hammer cocked and a round in the chamber.
Assistant State Attorney Nita Denton said she was seriously considering a manslaughter charge in the Dargis case until she went to inspect the gun and found it "went off," while unloaded, with a very light trigger pull when the hammer was cocked.
Unlike many handguns, the Colt .45 won't fire unless the hammer is pulled back either manually or by the action of a previous shot being fired, Ruel said.
Dargis said she didn't know where the gun came from, but police found her boyfriend's fingerprint on the clip that holds the ammunition. He denied it was his, but Henry Thompson was ultimately sentenced to seven years in prison for possession of a firearm by a felon.
He told police and his sentencing judge that his fingerprint was on the gun because he found it in the bushes two days before the shooting and when he picked it up, the clip fell out. He claimed he put it back where he found it because he was afraid he would be arrested if he reported it or hurt if he got rid of it.
"If I'd have known this was gonna happen, you think I'd have left that (expletive) gun (there)?" Thompson said in his recorded interview.
In the Port St. Lucie case, investigators said Williams stole the gun from a Martin County sheriff's deputy's patrol car in his driveway and, although Williams thought he had unloaded the gun, he deliberately pointed the weapon and pulled the trigger.
Williams also reportedly has a criminal history as a juvenile, authorities said. Dargis had two shoplifting arrests.
Bakkedahl said it's not unusual for law enforcement agencies to push for charges greater than those prosecutors believe they can prove at trial, but the ultimate decision is up to the lawyers.
"Sometimes police see things differently," he said. "We're charged with the responsibility of making the call on these."
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