NEPHI — A judge dismissed a second-degree felony manslaughter charge Friday against a West Haven man accused of fatally shooting his younger brother in May.
Eric Charlton, 27, of West Haven, will still stand trial on a lesser charge of negligent homicide, a class A misdemeanor, as well as misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment and carrying a dangerous weapon under the influence of alcohol.
"Going from second-degree felony to a class A misdemeanor is a huge jump," said defense attorney Susanne Gustin. "It's still a huge victory."
"There was no evidence in the present case that (Charlton) knew there was a round in the chamber that could be fired if the trigger were pulled," 4th District Judge James Brady said in his written decision Friday. Brady cited a precedent case, adding that because Charlton didn't know the gun that killed his brother was loaded, he cannot perceive the risk of his actions, which would not constitute reckless behavior.
"It surely is tempting to simply conclude that anyone who handles a firearm in any manner other than to treat it as a loaded weapon that could fire at any instant is reckless, especially if they are drunk while doing so … however, the definition of 'reckless' that I am bound to follow … is narrower," Brady wrote.
"I am ecstatic," Gustin said. "His family is going to be absolutely relieved and this takes a huge burden off of them."
Charlton, a former Marine, was extremely emotional during the preliminary hearing Wednesday, sobbing openly and nearly constantly throughout the day-long hearing. Witnesses recounted the night of May 28, when Charlton, his 17-year-old brother Cameron and a friend, Jonathan Hummel, sat around a campfire and heard coyotes howling.
Charlton retrieved a gun from his truck, unloaded the magazine and fired twice into the air before handing the weapon to Cameron, upon the younger brother's request.
Amid conversation regarding girls and trust, Charlton fired the weapon while pointing it at his brother, and immediately regretted it, according to Hummel, 17. Hummel did not witness the shooting, but told the court on Wednesday that he "knew it was an accident."
Despite an attempt to revive him, Cameron died at the scene from a gunshot wound to the head, and a distraught Charlton was taken into custody. Police later reported Charlton's blood-alcohol level at 0.06 percent.
Gustin said she pulled out all the stops for the preliminary hearing, presenting two experts and showing more evidence than is typical.
"I didn't want the judge to bind it over, so we had to practically put a trial on," she said. "My strategy was to just throw it all out, right up front, and hit them hard in hopes that he wouldn't be held over on the manslaughter charge."
Gustin said her client remains "traumatized" by the incident and is receiving regular counseling treatment at the VA Hospital, and has support from friends and family.