TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — A mother who authorities say left her 3-year-old son unrestrained in a car after she placed a pistol under the driver's seat has been charged with manslaughter in the death of the boy, who shot himself in the head while the woman went to get food.
The woman's boyfriend, who is the gun's owner, was also charged.
"Nothing is sadder than the death of a child, and when the death is the result of criminal negligence, there needs to be accountability," Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said Wednesday. "Guns are inherently dangerous, and the law, as well as common sense, requires that guns be handled responsibly, especially around children."
The mother, Jahnisha McIntosh, 23, and her boyfriend, Eric Vita, 22, made their initial appearance on the second-degree manslaughter charges Wednesday afternoon in Pierce County Superior Court. They both pleaded not guilty.
Julio Segura-McIntosh's death on March 14 was the third child shooting in Western Washington within three weeks. On Feb. 22, an 8-year-old girl was critically wounded by a gun that went off in a classmate's backpack in a Bremerton school. On March 10, the 7-year-old daughter of a Marysville police officer was killed when her brother found a gun in the family car.
In Julio's case, Vita and McIntosh had stopped for gas in Tacoma. Vita, who has a concealed weapons permit, removed his gun from his waistband to avoid alarming the clerk and placed it under the passenger seat, the prosecutor said.
Julio had unbuckled himself and climbed into the front seat to ask his mother for candy. McIntosh moved the gun from under the passenger seat to under the driver's seat so Julio could not reach it. Then, she went inside the convenience store for food, leaving Julio unrestrained, the prosecutor said.
Julio found the gun and shot himself in the head. McIntosh's 8-month old daughter was in the car at the time and was not hurt.
Friends and family told detectives that Vita routinely showed off the gun with a laser sight and on one occasion offered to let Julio hold the gun before another adult intervened.
Vita's attorney, David Gehrke, told KOMO that that shooting was a tragedy that has left everyone involved in shock. Vita acted reasonably, he said.
"I think he was being very careful. He did not just leave the gun there, without another adult present. And I think if the mother had stayed in there, this probably would not have happened," Gehrke said.
"My understanding is that the child went from the back seat to the front seat, got the gun, the mom took it away and said, 'No, leave that alone,' and then put it under her seat. And then inexplicably she got out and went into the convenience store to buy something," he said.
Gehrke said he's not blaming the mother.
"She lost her child, and that should be punishment for any parent in a circumstance like this," he said.
The child shootings have raised questions about Washington's gun laws. The state is one of 23 that doesn't have a specific law to prevent child access to firearms, such as mandatory trigger locks or criminal penalties for adults who allow children to access guns, according to the San Francisco-based group Legal Community Against Violence.
Washington state law is specific about carrying loaded pistols in vehicles, however. A person with a concealed weapons permit must lock the gun and conceal it from view if it is left in the car.
In the Bremerton classroom shooting that nearly killed Amina Kocer-Bowman, the Kitsap County prosecutor charged the mother of a boy who brought the gun in his backpack and the mother's boyfriend with felony assault for allowing the boy access to the .45-caliber handgun. Jamie Lee Chaffin, and her boyfriend, Douglas L. Bauer, have pleaded not guilty.
In the Stanwood shooting, the Snohomish County prosecutor's office said Wednesday the shooting is still under investigation by the sheriff's office. When the case is sent to the prosecutor's office, it will decide whether charges should be filed against Officer Derek Carlile, who left a loaded gun in the car.
Snohomish sheriff's spokesman Kevin Prentiss said Wednesday that investigators are wrapping up loose ends and finishing interview transcripts, and the case should go to the prosecutor's office within two weeks. Detectives used child interview specialists to question children.