By filing assault charges against the two adults he claims ultimately were responsible for last month's shooting at a Bremerton, Wash. elementary school, the county prosecutor acknowledges his office is making an unprecedented legal move in Washington state.
In cases in which a child obtains a weapon through an adult's alleged negligence, prosecutors generally file a gross-misdemeanor charge of reckless endangerment.
But Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge said a thorough review of the case -- including the devastating bullet wound suffered by 8-year-old Amina Kocer-Bowman and the circumstances in which a third-grade classmate allegedly obtained a .45-caliber handgun -- called out for a felony charge and a tougher penalty.
On Tuesday, prosecutors charged Jamie Lee Chaffin, 34, and her boyfriend, Douglas L. Bauer, 50, with third-degree assault in connection with the Feb. 22 shooting at Armin Jahr Elementary School.
Bauer and Chaffin, who also goes by the last name Passmore, also were charged with unlawful possession of a firearm.
Amina was wounded when a handgun in the backpack of Chaffin's 9-year-old son accidentally discharged during class. The girl suffered a life-threatening wound and has undergone five surgeries at Seattle's Harborview Medical Center.
Last week, Chaffin's son pleaded guilty in Kitsap County Juvenile Court to reckless endangerment, unlawful possession of a firearm and bringing a weapon to school. In exchange for a sentence of one year of probation, he agreed to testify against his mother and Bauer.
The boy said he obtained the loaded handgun days before the shooting during a visit to the home Chaffin and Bauer share. Prosecutors said police found several unsecured handguns during a search of the home immediately after the shooting.
"The adults have the responsibility for the firearm," Hauge said Tuesday. "It was no different from if they said to him: 'Here, put this (gun) in your backpack.' "
Hauge concedes filing an assault charge is an aggressive move in this case, an opinion shared by legal experts.
State law is extremely vague on the issue of criminal responsibility in a case in which a child shoots someone after obtaining an adult's firearm.
Some county prosecutors, including Hauge, have relied on the broad reckless-endangerment statute, which involves a person recklessly engaging in conduct that "creates a substantial risk of death or serious physical injury to a person."
But in this case, reckless endangerment, punishable by up to a year in jail, was not severe enough, Hauge said. If convicted of third-degree assault, a class C felony, Chaffin and Bauer each could face up to five years in prison.
According to state law, a person can be convicted of third-degree assault if, through "criminal negligence," they "caused bodily harm to another person by means of a weapon or other instrument or thing likely to produce bodily harm."
The shooting effectively "amounted to giving the firearm to the young boy," Hauge said.
But legal experts say filing an assault charge in this type of case is unusual. Assault charges generally are filed against those suspected of directly injuring a victim.
University of Washington law Professor Mary Fan said charging the couple with third-degree assault is "stretching" the law.
Fan said the boy's mother and her boyfriend may have never "contemplated or desired" the shooting.
"After tragedies, there is this sense that we want to attribute liability," Fan said. "That can lead to aggressive charging."
However, fellow UW law Professor Steve Calandrillo said penalizing parents for the actions of their young child makes complete sense.
"If you have a parent who could prevent the risk of harm by locking up a gun, it makes sense to hold them liable," Calandrillo said. "We want other parents to get the message."
(Contact Jennifer Sullivan at jensullivanseattletimes.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com)