Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Teen guilty of assault in accidental shooting

OLYMPIA — A 19-year-old man pleaded guilty Monday to third-degree assault for accidentally shooting a friend.

The defendant, Danial R. Coots of Olympia, faces one to three months in jail. But his plea before Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham saved him from the possibility of serving a 21-month prison term.

On Feb. 8, 2005, Coots and a friend, David Nelson, then 19, were drinking alcohol with another friend’s sister, then 16. They went into the girl’s bedroom so she could get cigarettes, and she showed them a 9 mm handgun that her parents had given her for protection. While handling it, Coots accidentally shot Nelson in the head. It was about 1:30 a.m.

Nelson survived but has lingering medical problems. The bullet shattered his skull, severed his jaw and damaged his facial nerves.

He lost hearing in one ear and can’t close one eye or smile normally, said his mother, Donna Roush of Tenino.

He also developed psychological problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.

“We don’t know where it’s going to lead with problems down the road. A little time has passed, and the little problems have started rearing
their heads,” she said.

The case also traumatized the other two teens and their families. Their parents questioned whether justice was served by filing charges against Coots and the girl — neither of whom had criminal records — for what they perceived as a horrible accident.

The girl was charged with third-degree assault in juvenile court for giving the weapon to Coots. She pleaded guilty in February under an agreement that the charge would be dropped in a year as long as she testified, attended alcohol and drug counseling, and performed 40 hours of community service, court documents say. The Olympian is not naming the girl because she is a minor.

Coots’ case was reviewed several times before charges were filed. If it had gone to trial, a jury would have been asked to decide whether Coots was guilty of assault by criminal negligence because he was drinking and carelessly handling the weapon.

“There needs to be some accountability for this event. It’s hard for me under these circumstances to have a young man shot in the head, have his life changed forever, and not have any accountability for that at all,” Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim said.

He said he hopes it will deter others from careless gun-­handling.
Coots’ sentencing is set for May 2.

The girl pulled out the gun after Coots noticed pellets from an Airsoft gun in her room. He asked whether she owned an Airsoft pellet gun, and she replied, “Would you like to see my baby?” She then pulled out the gun from under her bed, attorneys said.

Coots thought it was a pellet gun, said Jim Dixon, his attorney.

He pulled back the action, which ejected a round that he did not see. When the action slid back, Coots’ finger was on the trigger while they were looking at it.

Both Coots and Nelson worked for Olympic Arms Inc., a firearms company in Thurston County.

In exchange for the guilty plea, prosecutors dismissed a firearms enhancement, which would have added 18 months to the sentence.

“The stakes were just too high for Danial,” Dixon said of his client’s decision to plead guilty. “He is completely broken up about it.”

Coots’ father, Don, said police gave him the impression that they thought the case looked like an accident with no criminal violations.

As a former state prison employee, he said, he can’t understand how his son might have faced a prison term as long as some inmates do for more serious crimes.

“These kids have the rest of their lives,” he said.

The girl’s mother, Tina Wright, said one of the boys brought the alcohol into their garage, where the boys were drinking. She said they were supposed to have gone to sleep but instead went into her daughter’s room for a few minutes.

She said her daughter was given the gun because someone had stolen one family car and broken into the family garage. She was taught how to handle it. “This was a horrible, horrible tragedy, and the bottom line is, we feel so thankful that David is alive,” she said.

But she said her family didn’t feel it would be able to fight the criminal charges because of her daughter’s emotional state over the incident.

“I really don’t want to shift the blame, because we want to own up to our share of it. But I’m just amazed at how much these kids are going through,” she said. “It just feels to me like she and Danial were really being bullied.”

The victim’s mother said she thinks the defendants should serve jail time and be required to take gun safety classes and drug and alcohol counseling. She said she doesn’t understand why the gun wasn’t stored in a safer location or better supervised.

“The things they took from us we can never take back,” she said.

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