For those who haven’t heard, Jeff Dilworth was released from Broward County Jail this evening when the Honorable John J. Hurley set bond in the amount of $10,000. Despite this good ruling, Dilworth is still facing a manslaughter charge for the accidental shooting of Daniel Torres in Hollywood, Florida this past April.
While the exact details of what allegedly happened in April are only known to prosecutors and police, the legal community in Fort Lauderdale is buzzing with what appears to be an entirely inappropriate filing decision by the Broward County State Attorney’s Office.
According to the Sun-Sentinel, Dilworth and Torres were hanging out at Dilworth’s house when Dilworth showed off his mom’s 9mm handgun to Torres. Once show and tell was over, Dilworth put the gun back in his mother’s night stand.
Some time thereafter, Dilworth saw Torres 1) handling the firearm, 2) remove its magazine, and 3) remove two bullets. Dilworth then took the gun from Torres. While checking to see if it was still loaded, Torres walked in front of Dilworth at the same moment when Dilworth accidentally pulled the trigger. The gun discharged and the bullet landed in Torres’ head, causing his death.
There is no known evidence of malice, anger, or intent to harm or kill.
However, for some reason that is leaving the rest of the legal community puzzled, Broward prosecutors believe that this case is “more than just an accident.”
If that is true, the evidence had better be compelling.
It is well established in the State of Florida that accidental shootings are not criminal.
According to the Florida Supreme Court and the 4th District Court of Appeals, the “culpable negligence” aspect of a manslaughter charge must be of “a gross and flagrant character, evincing reckless disregard of human life or of the safety of persons.” In Interest of J.C.D., 598 So. 2d 304 (Fla. 4th DCA 1992), citing Preston v. State, 56 So. 2d 543, 544 (Fla. 1952)
In the above referenced case, the defendant removed the gun’s ammunition clip, as well as a bullet in the firing chamber before the shooting. However, when he stood up to put the gun away, he accidentally pulled the trigger resulting in a discharge that killed his friend.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? In that case, the 4th District Court of Appeals (which controls Broward and Palm Beach counties) stated that the facts did NOT support a finding of culpable negligence and the conviction was reversed and remanded with directions to discharge the defendant.
This was also the case in a 3rd District Court of Appeals case. In the matter of J.A. v. State of Florida, 593 So. 2d 572 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1992), the defendant accidentally dropped a rifle and accidentally caused the trigger to be depressed when he reach for the falling rifle. The court ruled that while his actions were careless, they did not amount to culpable negligence.
The 3rd District Court of Appeals also stated that “accidental firearm discharge may be the produce of simple or gross negligence by the accused, but cannot rise to the level of culpable negligence so as to constitute a criminal manslaughter.” J.A. at 573.
In fact, Dilworth’s case presents an even greater example of how culpable negligence is misapplied than was presented in either of these cases.
First, Dilworth wasn’t acting with “reckless disregard for human life” when the gun accidentally discharged. On the contrary, he was making sure the gun wasn’t loaded.
AGAIN, this assumes that prosecutors are not withholding any additional facts or evidence from the public.
Second, Torres got shot not only because Dilworth accidentally pulled the trigger, but because Torres walked into the gun’s line of sight. To be clear, I am not blaming Torres for anything. I am merely pointing out that his actions contributed in part to the chain of events that resulted in the bullet landing in his head. This included his unauthorized handling of the gun after Dilworth had put it away. Had Torres never gone back to take a second look, this shooting would have never happened.
Third, when judging whether or not Dilworth acted in a “gross and flagrant manner,” jurors will not be able to hold him to an adult standard, even though he is being charged in adult court. Culpible negligence cases are analyzed on a case by case basis. In this instance a jury will be asked whether or not Dilworth’s actions were reasonable. To make this determination, jurors will have to get inside the mind of a 14 year old boy and use that standard. An adult level of care is entirely inappropriate because Dilworth and Torres were not adults.
As you can now see, manslaughter premised on culpable negligence is not a “catch all” charge for prosecutors who want to prosecute someone for an unfortunate killing but who lack the evidence to pursue murder charges. Rather, true culpable negligence happens when a person truly does a reckless act, albeit without intent to harm or kill, but which results in someone’s accidental death anyway.
For example, New Years Eve revelers who shoot off their guns into the night to celebrate could be guilty of culpable negligence when their bullets return to Earth and kill an innocent bystander. Another example of culpable negligence could be found in a case where someone waives a loaded gun around a room of people just to scare them as a joke, but who pulls the trigger by accident and unintentionally shoots someone.
In other cases, appellate courts have affirmed convictions where a person mishandled a firearm while drunk or high which resulted in an accidental shooting causing death.
Clearly, Dilworth’s case is not like any of these.
However, it should be mentioned that the Sun-Sentinel article reported that police detectives confiscated four photographs from Dilworth’s computer that depict him holding and pointing a gun. Unless these pictures can be tied to this particular instance, they have no relevant evidentiary value whatsoever and would only serve to improperly prejudice a jury against Dilworth. For that reason, they will likely never be admitted at trial.
Context is everything. Insinuations have no place in a court of law.
However, as a former prosecutor, I know exactly why these charges have been filed. According to new reports, Torres’ father is out there demanding answers – as he should. He has also been reported as stating that he agrees with the charges.
Who can blame him? His son died from an accident that should have never have happened and which could have been prevented.
HOWEVER, to hold a 14 year old boy criminally liable, to the tune of 30 years in prison is utterly reckless.
Prosecutors know this and that is why they are already talking about plea deals, probation instead of prison, and rehabilitation. Dilworth does not need any of that. He is not a juvenile delinquent, he has no known psychiatric problems, and he did nothing wrong.
What do they plan to rehabilitate? What disease does Dilworth suffer from other than puberty?
Respectfully, I must disagree with the State Attorney’s decision in this case.
Unless there is more unknown information that supports a finding of “reckless disregard for human life” then this case must be dropped immediately.
On the other hand, the facts and the law DO support charges against Dilworth’s mother. In this regard, the State Attorney did get it right. I am sure that even Dilworth’s mom would agree that leaving a loaded gun within reach of unsupervised teenage boys was utterly irresponsible. There is no doubt in my mind that she is eating herself up over this as we speak.
Regardless, if any plea deal is to be made, it should be a guilty plea by the mom in exchange for dropping all charges on the son.
Lets not make Dilworth into a second victim.