Few people can imagine the sorrow that comes with the death of a child. That sorrow is compounded when a parent knows the death was caused by his or her own carelessness. Add to that the zeal prosecutors seem to have to charge a negligent parent with manslaughter, and the loss may be one that is almost impossible to cope with.
This happened to former police officer, John Thompson. Thompson’s life dramatically changed a few years ago when his young son, then five years old, was looking for candy in a closet. Instead, the boy found his father’s service revolver and ended up shooting himself in the head. The gun was fully loaded with a round in the chambers. The closet was in the master bedroom where the child often watched television with his four siblings.
Even though the gun was not within the child’s reach, and the five-year-old, Gavin Thompson, had to stand on a chair to get it, his father was charged with involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of children. Prosecutors alleged that a police officer should have known not to leave his gun in an unlocked closet where a child could access it.
Thompson rejected an offer by the state to enter into a plea agreement and took his chances at a trial presided over by a judge instead of a jury.
According to Pennsylvania law, “A person is guilty of involuntary manslaughter when as a direct result of the doing of an unlawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner, or the doing of a lawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner, he causes the death of another person.”
In order to convict Thompson of involuntary manslaughter, the prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:
- Thompson directly caused the death of his five-year-old son, Gavin; and
- Caused Gavin’s death by Thompson’s own reckless or grossly negligent conduct.
The court considered all the evidence, including testimony that Thompson hung snacks in the same closet where the weapons were stored. Testimony claimed that Thompson had to repeatedly warn Gavin to stay out of the closet and that Christmas presents stored in the closet created another reason the child would want to explore the closet.
In the end, the judge found it was a close case in that Thompson was “clearly negligent” and could have done better, but his conduct did not rise to the level of “recklessness or gross negligence” which was required for a conviction. Accordingly, the court’s verdict was that Thompson was not guilty. Thompson’s wife, who supported him throughout the ordeal, collapsed upon hearing the verdict but recovered quickly.
When the trial was over, Thompson hugged his attorney, R. Anthony DeLuca, but did not speak to the press. Mr. DeLuca acknowledged the ordeal had been difficult and despite the acquittal, Thompson still lost his son. Thompson, who was suspended shortly after the shooting, planned to pursue a return to his old job as a police officer.