Source of article The Jury Box.
A Tragic Spray of Bullets
At a gun show in Westfield, Massachusetts, organized by a former police chief, Chistopher Bizilj (age 8) lost his life. Among the guns that two men brought to the show was a small Uzi submachine gun. They handed the gun to Bizilj, who started to fire the gun, lost control, and accidentally and fatally shot himself.
Now, the event organizer and two weapons providers are on trial for involuntary manslaughter in the boy’s death. Originally scheduled for trial this month, the case has been continued until December.
The three defendants will certainly attempt to defend their actions as inherently safe and reasonable. Their defense will be that this was a horrible, unforeseeable accident. Such a defense might have difficulty holding sway even among a group of philosophers and legal scholars, sitting around a conference table. The odds are even longer in an emotionally charged courtroom.
No Such Thing as an Accident?
One major obstacle facing the defense is “hindsight bias,” a term that I have discussed multiple times in other Jury Box posts. In short, hindsight bias refers to the tendency of people to perceive a highly unlikely, or freakish, event as having been more likely than it was, just because it happened. For instance, if someone gets struck by lightening in your home town, you might come to believe that this is a much more common occurrence than it actually is.
Hindsight Bias tends to lead jurors down a path of irrational inferences. Because people don’t like the idea of life being beyond their own abilities to control it, they tend also to overestimate the likelihood that someone is actually responsible for a freakish occurrence, especially a dangerous one. The crazier and more improbable the circumstances, the more uncomfortable it makes people feel. They feel increasingly compelled to assign blame to someone. This results in a rather perverse relationship between the randomness of an event and the need of people to hold someone responsible for it. (This is actually the nexus of hindsight bias and terror management theory.)
One of the greatest fears facing any parent is the prospect of losing a child to senseless violence. A juror will internally resist seeing this event as an accident because doing so only highlights the vulnerability of their own children. While the defense might hope for some support among jurors who are gun advocates, such people are likely to try to differentiate themselves from the defendants. “Oh, a responsible gun owner would never handle a weapon that way. I always lock my guns when children are around. I’d never hand a loaded weapon to a small boy. That’s just what the left-wing loonies think we do all the time.”
From Blame Avoidance to Blame Shifting
In light of the issues identified above, it will be very difficult for the defendants in this case to convince a jury that the boy’s death was simply the result of a tragic accident. The desire to hold someone accountable will just be too strong. The defendants would do well to try to shift the blame elsewhere. This strategy is not without risk and might engender some resentment among jurors. But it also just might work.
The major difficulty here might be finding someone else to point the finger at. One obvious possibility is the boy’s parents. What were they doing taking an 8-year old to a gun show? Did his father really let him just take the gun? Had they ever taught him about gun safety? The danger of such a strategy, however, is self-evident. Because the parents have just suffered such a terrible loss, the defendants would face major resentment for “blaming the victim.”
Perhaps the event organizer can point to regulations that precluded him from keeping children out of the event. Perhaps the suppliers can point to manufacturer guidelines that identify the gun as suitable for use by youngsters. The gun suppliers have already claimed that Fleury, the event organizer, incorrectly assured them that it was legal in Massachusetts for a minor to fire an Uzi. In addition, the gun club that hosted the event has already settled its criminal charges. This provides an opportunity to assign blame to a party that won’t be in the courtroom to defend itself.
Over all, I believe that the defendants in this case will have a very difficult time overcoming the effects of hindsight bias. I fully expect plea deals to be struck before the jury ever gets charged.