A violent child of a chaotic home

His father in jail, his mother evicted, his classmate dead

March 02, 2000|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

After the shooting, the suspect sat in the elementary school office drawing pictures -- entirely age-appropriate behavior when you are 6 years old.

Law enforcement officials agree that the boy who fatally shot another first-grader at their school outside Flint, Mich., on Tuesday is too young to be held criminally responsible for the horrifying act.

But the question remains: Who, then, is responsible?

Police in Mount Morris Township, Mich., have arrested a man reported to be the boy's uncle, with whom he was living, on an outstanding felony warrant on charges of receiving stolen property.

Another man who might have previously used the .32-caliber pistol fired by the boy on Tuesday turned himself in to police yesterday and was arrested on what authorities described as outstanding warrants and miscellaneous charges.

The boy's father has told police that the home of the uncle, Sirmarcus B. Winfrey, is a crack house frequented by people known to trade guns for drugs. It is a ramshackle, one-story house, with broken windows taped over with plastic garbage bags and a rusting Camaro on blocks on the front lawn.

The boy and his 8-year-old brother had been living there for two weeks, since their mother was evicted from her home. The boys also have a 5-year-old sister.

The boy's father, Dedric Owens, 28, is in jail, accused of a parole violation after a two-year prison term on convictions for cocaine trafficking and home invasion. He was let out of jail to attend a court hearing in Flint yesterday with the boy's mother, 29-year-old Tamarla Owens. Although he asked for custody of the boy, a judge ordered the boy to live with an aunt.

"I am not a bad father. I have had my ups and downs with the law," the father read from a statement prepared by his attorney.

The father previously told police that when he heard about the shooting he had "a cold, sinking feeling" that his son was involved because he had been suspended from school for fighting in the past.

On Monday, the boy apparently quarreled with Kayla Rolland, also 6. The next morning, police said, he found the .32-caliber pistol under blankets in the house and brought it to school. He told police that he was trying to scare Kayla, but accidentally shot her in the chest. She died a half-hour later.

The Genessee County prosecutor has said he is looking into how the boy got the gun and whether another person might be charged if it can be shown he or she was grossly negligent in allowing the boy access to the weapon.

Issues of responsibility

But several lawyers said yesterday they did not believe adults in the household could be held responsible for the shooting. Michigan is not one of the 17 states, including Maryland, that have "Child Access Prevention" laws making adults liable for failing to secure weapons from children.

"I don't think it's a crime as far as our present statutes exist," said John Shea, a Michigan-based criminal defense attorney. "Most negligent acts are not criminal. With no intention that the kid would get the gun, it's just simple carelessness."

"Certainly if somebody gave this kid a gun, that's a crime," said David Yassky, a Brooklyn Law School professor who has worked on firearms issues. "But if you simply leave a gun lying around, it's not a crime."

In Colorado, a man who sold a gun to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold that the boys used in the Columbine High School massacre last April was prosecuted for providing a handgun to minors, Yassky said. That man, Mark Manes, 22, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison.

In addition, Yassky said, victims' families increasingly are using general negligence tort laws to go after adults who have allowed children access to guns.

Classes canceled

In Mount Morris Township yesterday, classes were canceled at Buell Elementary School as members of the community continued to deal with what happened in Room 6 on Tuesday. Flowers and tributes piled up for the slain girl. Her father, Ricky Rolland, said he believes the boy specifically brought the gun to school to shoot his daughter after their argument the previous day.

Others, however, called for sympathy for the troubled boy.

"He is a victim in many ways," Genesee County Prosecutor Arthur Busch said. "It is very sad. We need to put our arms around him and love him."

Juvenile offenders

The killing is the latest in a string of school shootings in communities across the country. In Michigan, the boy's age calls to mind another high-profile case that raised questions of how to deal with juvenile offenders.

In November, Nathaniel Abraham was convicted as an adult for killing a stranger when he was 11 years old. Abraham was the first youngster to be prosecuted for murder under a 1997 Michigan law that allows children of any age to be charged as adults for serious crimes. In January, he was sentenced to a juvenile detention center until he turns 21, when he will be freed, by a judge who was highly critical of the new law.

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