The district attorney's office concluded that the facts implicated Richard. After filing the charges against him in September, Harper put the pieces together this way for reporters outside the courtroom: Richard, she contended, had retrieved the loaded handgun, removed one of the bullets and pointed the weapon at Christian in what she termed a "reverse Russian roulette scheme." But because he was dyslexic, he may have miscalculated the direction the chambers would rotate and thus fired a live round when he thought he would hit the empty chamber. This scenario, she successfully argued, warrants trying Richard for murder as an adult because it involved what she called "a high degree of sophistication and planning" from the time Richard thought about getting out the gun to "the whole big lie he told police" after the shooting.
Hall countered at the time that Harper's scenario, which his client denies, shows that the shooting was "very close to an accident, misadventure, misfortune, a tragic situation."
A few weeks after school started, Richard surrendered in court on an arrest warrant charging him with murder, returning to Orange County after having spent the summer in the desert, where he had stayed in contact with Hall. He was held at Orange County Juvenile Hall before a judge ruled that should be tried as an adult. Should he be convicted of first-degree murder--which seems unlikely given the lack of evidence to date for premeditation--Richard could face a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison. A conviction for second-degree murder--requiring proof that a person had reasonable knowledge of the consequences of his actions but was reckless--would carry a 15-years-to-life prison term.
Aside from the physical evidence is the question of Richard's interest in and knowledge about guns. Hall attributes the glaring inconsistencies that emerged from the preliminary hearing to "white lies" that a teen-ager might tell out of a sense of self-preservation and stresses that that does not a murderer make. Instead, Hall says, the most serious charge Richard should be facing is manslaughter, legally defined as killing without malice, and a charge more typically filed in cases of accidents involving gross negligence, such as drunken driving.
"I don't believe that the physical evidence, once this case is litigated fully, is ever going to show that, by any stretch of the imagination, the firing of the handgun was a deliberate act," Hall says. "It's going to take a while for this to all come out in court and part of the reason . . . is that Richard has the unique situation of four years ago. That's always going to be a factor when anybody hears about this case. . . . People are going to say, 'Lightning doesn't strike twice.' "
Both sides expect that details of the earlier shooting will be an important factor in the case if they are allowed to be aired in court as they were in Richard's preliminary hearing over Hall's objections.
"I think a lot of people feel that he should never have been in a position to have access to guns and therefore place blame or responsibility on the parents," Hall says. "But I don't find it at all odd that somebody who was involved in an accidental shooting might several years later, when the peer group that one is in has access to other types of weapons, that they would, out of curiosity or whatever, be curious about messing around with a gun."
In an 11th-hour bid to avoid trial three months ago, Harper says, Hall agreed to have Richard plead guilty to manslaughter charges and accept a seven-year sentence at the California Youth Authority. Harper says she considered it to avoid putting all three families through the emotional trauma that a trial would surely bring. But ultimately, she decided against it, telling Christian's father, "We think he was murdered."
When Judge Anderson ruled in November that there was enough evidence to show a crime had been committed in Christian's death, she referred not only to the forensic evidence and expert testimony but to Richard's own story and the testimony of his teen-age friends. She said she found his comments about being unfamiliar with guns "totally unbelievable." She added: "I was appalled beyond belief that he had been playing with a shotgun that he had killed another human being with."
In explaining her ruling, Anderson said the four-day hearing had been "one of the harder cases I've had," as she daily watched the pain played out on the faces of the families.