Should Eric Charlton be held Legally Responsible?

In May 2012, 27-year-old Eric Charlton accidently shot and killed his younger brother. While drinking on a camping trip in Utah, Charlton’s handgun accidently fired, striking his brother, Cameron, in the temple. Because Charlton had not loaded a live round in the gun after replacing the bullet clip, he rightfully believed the chamber was empty. Likewise, Charlton had no intention of shooting his brother. Charlton was initially charged with second-degree felony manslaughter despite his lack of intention to kill, though this charge was later reduced to misdemeanor negligent homicide.

Under the rules of strict liability, legal responsibility is determined by wrongful intention combined with wrongful action. Intention includes actions that are done purposefully, knowingly, recklessly, and negligently. Reckless and negligent actions are included because the person is considered responsible for knowing the possible ramifications of a particular action. In the case of Eric Charlton, none of these applied because he had every reason to think the gun chamber was empty. Therefore, I believe Charlton should not be held legally responsible for his brother’s death. Though he was the cause of his brother’s accidental murder, he should not be culpable for the inadvertent loading and firing of the bullet that killed Cameron. It is an extremely tragic and sad situation, which Charlton will constantly be reminded of throughout his life. Charlton had no desire to kill his brother. He loved and cared about his brother dearly, and the coming life of trauma from this experience will serve as ample punishment for Charlton. To punish Charlton with legal sanctions on top of this is excessive and does not consider the pain he is already experiencing as a result of his brother’s death.

The purpose of legal sanctions is to discourage future crime and to serve as retribution for those who have committed crimes, along with preventing risks to society. Eric Charlton has not perpetuated criminal activity by his accidental murder of his brother, and there is no need to exacerbate his guilt and pain with legal retribution. This does not eliminate Charlton’s responsibility in his brother’s death; it simply acknowledges that he is already experiencing the grave consequences of his actions.

In conclusion, I believe intention is extremely important in determining legal and moral responsibility. When there is no criminal intent, legal sanctions should not be imposed, as trauma and guilt serve as sufficient punishments. If Charlton had accidently killed someone else who was not related to him, I think civil court fines would be appropriate, but he still should not receive jail time for such a mistake.



9 thoughts on “Should Eric Charlton be held Legally Responsible?

  1. This is an incredibly tragic case, and I agree whole-heartedly. It’s absolutely ridiculous that this young man be prosecuted at all, much less to this extent of the law. I think you’re extremely right about the importance of intent in evaluating both moral and legal responsibility. Great post!

  2. I do agree that in this case Charlton should not be held responsible for the murder of his brother considering he had no reason to believe the gun would fire. WIth that said, I think that claiming that Charlton is not responsible and should therefore not face further legal sanctions puts us in a dangerous spot because we do not want to excuse guilty individuals on the basis of “not knowing”. For example, if you are speeding, you are technically breaking the law, and aware that you could possibly hurt not only yourself but others. Thus, if you get in a car accident and kill the person, are you held responsible? The answer is inevitably yes. Despite this, the “criminal” could argue that he did not realize he was speeding or that his actions would lead to such extreme results. Is that an excuse? Ultimately, it is clear that it would not be an excuse and he should be held responsible, while Charlton’s situation was very clearly a mistake and that is why he should not be held responsible.

  3. I think that this is an extremely difficult case to judge, as although Charlton did not necessarily intend to kill his brother, someone still did die. Even though there was no way that Charlton could know that the gun was set up in such a manner that could cause harm, harm was still done. While I do not believe that severe punishment should be implemented, as it was just an honest mistake, there needs to be some sort of punishment enacted so that others cannot use the excuse of not knowing. Constantly allowing for excuses of “not knowing” to work will eventually dilute the true meaning of this defense. I also disagree with the statement of “If Charlton had accidentally killed someone who was not related to him…”, as I think his punishment should be the same whether it was his brother or a complete stranger. However, the guilt that Charlton will have to live with for the rest of his life is unfortunate, and the type of punishment implemented should reflect this, and should not be as harsh- possibly a revocation of his license to own and operate a weapon of such manner.

  4. I agree that the defendant should not be held legally responsible for his actions. It seems our society puts too much emphasis on retributive justice, dispensing punishments that match the consequences of one’s actions, and not enough on intent, whether the person intended to cause the end result. If we compare someone who intended to shoot and kill another individual, but missed, with someone who had no intentions of shooting and killing another individual, but accidentally did so, I think morality would deem the former “bad” and the latter “good”. This presents an evident disjunction between morality and law that reveals how the law may not always carry out what is “right”.

  5. I agree with your analysis regarding the outcome of the case. Eric clearly cared about his brother and lacked any intent to do him harm. The gun, as far as was aware, was not loaded, and it really does seem as if this incident was purely an accident. That said, I think it is interesting to consider how this case would have been treated differently if a friend or acquaintance – rather than his brother – had been mistakenly shot in the temple. I think it is far more likely his actions would have been deemed “negligent,” and as such, there is a greater likelihood he would have been found guilty of wrongful intent. As an owner and enthusiast of rifles and pistols myself, safety should always be held in the highest regard. You should never “assume” anything regarding the handling of arms. They are designed to kill and they can do so easily; any who treats their weapon differently, is, in my opinion, behaving negligently. As such, I would be very curious to contemplate with my fellow students how, precisely, the jury would have found this young man had he not been related to the victim of this crime.

    • Thank you all for your kind and logical responses. If you have any questions about specifics, please post and I will do my best to answer.


  6. This case could be considered an anomaly. Cases like this are the reason that we do not evaluate every case on a strict liability basis. Surely, he did not act out of wrongful intent and this for some part helped his case. I believe the biggest factor in determining his punishment would be his relation to the deceased. if it were not his brother, but perhaps his drinking buddy from college the case would have been entirely different. Some people might even push on gun control laws in this instance. People against gun control, just claim that people are irresponsible. But it is shown here, through Strawson’s Basic Argument, and in crimes across the world that people can not help but to be irresponsible.

  7. I think it is interesting that you mention in your post he was on a trip, drinking, but yet you do not mention later the fact that he had a handgun on his person while he was under the influence of alcohol. This, to me, is a clear case of negligent behavior on the part of Charlton. Just as we say a drunk driver is in charge of his actions and legally responsible for any persons injured as part of their drunk drive, so too should Charlton be held responsible legally for the death of his cousin. He chose to have his handgun in his hand while he was drunk and near others. He put himself and those around him in a dangerous situation and should be held responsible for this decision. I am not sure whether this means he should be punished to the extent that he could under the law, but I do not think he should be granted complete clemency.

  8. Pingback: Rape Victim's Parents Want Case Over | eJumo

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