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Not Guilty Plea in Girl's Shooting

A Dana Point 8-year-old was maimed when her father fired shotgun accidentally. He is charged with felony child endangerment.

October 18, 2002|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

A Dana Point man accused of wounding his 8-year-old daughter by accidentally firing his shotgun pleaded not guilty Thursday in a case that has ignited a debate about how far prosecutors should go in punishing parents in gun accidents.

Jeffrey A. West, who entered the plea in a Laguna Niguel courtroom, faces up to nine years in prison if convicted of a felony child-endangerment charge that was enhanced with an additional count that he inflicted great bodily harm.

Madison West lost part of her right arm and a kidney as a result of the Sept. 27 shooting. Investigators say the girl was standing near her father in his bedroom, watching him inspect his new shotgun, when the weapon accidentally fired as he unloaded it. She is recovering at the San Diego County home of her mother, who divorced West four years ago and shares custody of Madison and their 10-year-old son.

The case has left prosecutors, defense attorneys and gun advocates at odds over whether it is fair to hold West criminally responsible for a shooting that even investigators acknowledge was an accident.

The Orange County Sheriff's Department and district attorney's office say the charges are justified because West was fully aware his daughter was nearby and knew the gun was loaded, and that he should have at least pointed it away from her. "She was standing right next to him, in very close proximity," said sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino. "It appeared to be accidental. Nonetheless, it's very careless. You don't load and unload guns next to very small children. He put her in great danger."

West's mother, sobbing outside the courtroom, said he is devastated by the accident and does not deserve further punishment.

Lori Andie said her son has had primary custody of Madison and her brother, and described him as a devoted, responsible father who has spent every day at the hospital since the shooting, washing his daughter's hair and helping nurses any way he can.

"It's been a horrible tragedy, and one he has to live with the rest of his life," she said, recalling a recent phone conversation with her son. "He asked me if I had seen his baby, and he cried. She really looks to her daddy for her strength. I think the reason she's doing so well is because of her dad's care."

West's attorney, Robison D. Harley Jr., characterized the shooting as "nothing more than a tragic accident" that has left a single father traumatized, depressed and unfairly separated from a daughter he adores.

"He's devastated. He's mortified," Harley said outside the courtroom. Prosecutors "are trying to distort this tragedy into some kind of crime. The fact is, it's still an accident, and there was no criminal will involved. We've got an innocent man. He's a model parent. And he's being abused by the system."

Authorities say it is difficult to compare this shooting to others because gun accidents of this nature are rare. Most cases involving children occur in their handling an adult's gun that wasn't stored properly, and many of California's gun regulations focus on these situations.

In Orange County alone, charges have been filed in several parent-child shootings over the last 10 years.

Chuck Michel of the National Rifle Assn. said that even if West acted "recklessly," charging him with willful intent is "a big stretch."

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