Gun show Uzi trial highlights emotional impact of tragedy
The manslaughter trial of Edward Fleury, a retired Police Chief, finally got underway in Springfield, MA this week. The trial stems from a fatal accident at a gun show organized by Mr. Fleury, at which an 8-year-old boy, Christopher Bizilj, fatally shot himself with a lightweight Uzi submachine gun.
Prior to the original start date for the trial (which was delayed for over a month), I wrote a blog post in which I speculated about the kind of strategy the defense would have to employ in this case. Both Fleury and the two men who supplied the gun in question (who face similar charges in a separate trial) can mount legitimate defenses to the charges against them. While the boy’s death was certainly tragic and preventable, it is not clear that any of these men violated any laws that resulted in the accident.
In the earlier post, I suggested that it would be insufficient in such a emotionally charged case to simply demonstrate to the jury that the defendant’s conduct was not criminal. Terror management theory (TMT) is a psychological framework for understanding how people cope with the feelings of vulnerability and fear associated with tragic events beyond their own control. You can read more about how TMT applies to jury decision-making here. According to TMT, one of the strongest impulses in the aftermath of a tragedy is to assign responsibility or blame for what happened. Psychologically, we all want to avoid either (1) taking personal responsibility for a catastrophic event or (2) accepting that such horrific occurrences could really be random and uncontrollable.
Blame deflection v. blame avoidance
In light of these forces, I suggested that Fleury’s defense team would need to actually deflect blame onto someone else. This would allow the jury to find him not-guilty while still holding someone responsible. In the earlier post, I suggested that the safest option would be to find some government agency or inspector who had dropped the ball, in terms of allowing the boy to shoot the fatal weapon. People are more than happy in most circumstances to conclude that the “government” is at fault (Just look at the Tea Party success). The problems with such a strategy in this case are two-fold. First, this tragic event involved the direct participation of several identifiable individuals. In addition, the boy’s father videotaped the whole thing, adding to the intensely personal nature of the accident. The jury can actually see who was there when the bullets flew (Compare this with the case of the ceiling collapse in the Big Dig tunnel). As such, the jurors will be reluctant to assign blame to someone who wasn’t anywhere near the scene.
The second problem with such a strategy is that there is a lot of blame to go around. This poor boy shot his own head off in front of his whole family. Even if jurors were inclined to blame the state agency responsible for certifying gun shows and the person who permitted this one, they would still have plenty of anger left over for Mr. Fleury.
Given the unlikelihood of success from blaming a faceless bureaucracy for the boy’s death, Mr. Fleury’s defense team had little choice but to adopt the more dramatic – and risky – strategy of blaming the boy’s father for signing his 8-year-old son up to shoot the Uzi in the first place. The message has to be, “What kind of man gives his own little boy a submachine gun if the kid has no idea how to use it?” The entire defense strategy is that everyone at the gun show only did what Mr. Bizilj asked them to. He – the father – was in control of the situation at all times.
Fleury Defense Team reaches for the brass ring
The trial has been going on for a few days now and, unsurprisingly, Mr. Fleury’s defense attorney, Rosemary Scapicchio, has adopted precisely this strategy. She highlighted in her opening statement that every discretionary decision at the gun show regarding Christopher Bizilj was made by his father. In cross-examining prosecution witnesses, she has emphasized the normalcy of the gun show prior to Chistopher picking up the fatal gun. She is trying to emphasize that everything at the show was running smoothly until Mr. Bizilj encouraged his son to take the uzi.
This strategy is fraught with danger, however. Beyond the obvious backlash associated with “blaming the victim,” Ms. Scapicchio would be wise to worry about reactance from jurors. Reactance is an instinctual response to having one’s autonomy threatened. The jurors might not like being told whom to hold responsible.
I have worked on several cases (both criminal and civil) in which a victim’s parent, or parents, might have been considered at least partially responsible for a child’s harm. My experience with such circumstances suggests that jurors are often quite willing to blame a parent for negligently supervising a child. That said, jurors show a greater reluctance to do so when told to by one side or the other. The key is to give jurors everything they need to draw inferences implicating the parents without actually accusing them directly.
So far, Ms. Scapicchio has not been shy about blaming Mr. Bizilj directly. Perhaps this will set up a contest of sorts between Fleury and Bizilj, whereby the jury will vote not-guilty if they decide the father is more at fault. Just today, the fifteen-year-old boy who was supervising the uzi shooting booth testified that he twice asked Mr. Bizilj to consider a less powerful gun for his young son. I would only be concerned that the jurors will resent being asked to blame the father for his own son’s death. If they feel manipulated into a false choice between the defendant and the father, they might just convict out of spite against the defense team.
We’ll just have to wait and find out with everyone else.