'Celebratory gunfire' cases a challenge to prosecute

Death of 10-year-old Aaliyah Boyer in Cecil County remains unsolved

  • Ten-year-old Aaliyah Boyer died from injuries suffered New Years eve.
Ten-year-old Aaliyah Boyer died from injuries suffered New… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
January 15, 2013|By Justin George, The Baltimore Sun

The death of Aaliyah Boyer, a 10-year-old struck down in Cecil County, and the shooting of Laurie Eberhardt, a grandmother hit by gunfire in Florida, share the same perplexing challenge for prosecutors and investigators.

Both were watching fireworks on New Year's Eve when they were hit by apparent celebratory gunfire. And both face long odds of having their shooters brought to justice because of the anonymity of the crime and weak laws against firing guns indiscriminately into the air.

If authorities ever find the person who fired the shot that hit Aaliyah, the county's top prosecutor said, a misdemeanor charge might be the most he or she could face.

Cecil County sheriff's investigators have interviewed people they know fired in celebration moments after the new year arrived. There is no law against doing so in the area outside Elkton where the girl was hit, and police are still looking for the shooter.

Aaliyah was standing in her grandparents' yard near Elkton watching neighbors light fireworks when a bullet pierced the top of her head, sheriff's officials said. She died two days later in a Delaware hospital.

Eberhardt, who watched fireworks from a yacht club balcony in Tampa Bay, was hit in the right wrist by a large-caliber bullet about the same time as Aaliyah. Eberhardt said she cried when she learned through news reports of the 10-year-old's death. She felt compelled to speak out against celebratory gunfire, though she's not sure what can be done to stop it.

"I'm still processing it because I'm so shocked that it happened," said Eberhardt, 67, who lives in St. Petersburg. "I can't even get my head around that I was hit by a bullet in the sky. I'm learning every day this is a serious problem."

The shooter in her case has not been identified, and police and prosecutors in Florida struggle with limitations similar to those faced by Maryland authorities in such cases.

There's little national data about the problem. Organizations against celebratory gunfire use anecdotal evidence gathered each year from news reports in their campaigns. A study of stray-bullet shootings released this summer by a University of California professor who reviewed 284 incidents nationwide between March 2008 and February 2009 found that celebratory gunfire related to holidays accounted for less than 5 percent of stray-bullet shootings.

But experts say people fire into the air much more often than those falling bullets hit people. On New Year's Eve 1999, for example, Baltimore police launched a large operation that arrested 100 people caught randomly firing weapons.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Maryland State Police crime lab are helping analyze possible trajectories, as well as the bullet that Aaliyah's family said was recovered from her body. Investigators have told family members it could have come from two miles away.

"We're still out there investigating everything," Cecil County Sheriff's Lt. Michael Holmes said. "We believe there are more people out there who need to be identified. Right now, we're just looking for anybody who has knowledge of weapons being fired outside a house or someone who may have been at a party where a weapon was fired."

Even if a shooter is identified, which is rare in celebratory gunfire cases, lawyers say it is difficult to convict the person of a serious crime.

"It all depends on what the facts of the investigation showed," said Cecil County State's Attorney Edward D.E. Rollins III. "It does not sound to me like a situation where this was an intentional act. When I say 'intentional,' that the person fired this gun in the area with the intent of harming this young lady."

Without a suspect, the history of the shooter and gun, and the location from which it was fired, Rollins cannot determine exactly what charges could apply. But from what is known, he said, murder charges probably would not apply. He said reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of five years, might be prosecutable.

Criminal law punishes people based on their intent, said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, so it can be hard to charge someone who shoots without aiming at anyone.

Glenn Ivey, a Washington lawyer who served as Prince George's County state's attorney for eight years, said charges of second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter are possible, depending on a shooter's intentions and how many people were around when he pulled the trigger.

"But if it's Cecil County and you shoot a gun in the air on your 10-acre farm," he said, "that's different than shooting off a gun in, say, Ravens stadium."

Reckless endangerment has an easier standard to prove, said George Capowich, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.

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