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Accidental Gunshot Tests Culpability

Jury selection begins today for a Dana Point man whose shotgun blast tore off his daughter's forearm and damaged her kidney.

September 29, 2003|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

A Dana Point father who maimed his daughter when a loaded shotgun he was inspecting went off is at the center of a case that explores the gray area between a tragic but forgivable accident, and a criminal act.

Jeffrey West, 35, faces up to nine years in prison if convicted of felony child endangerment in the Sept. 27, 2002, shooting. Jury selection is to begin today.

West, who had just purchased the shotgun at a Big 5 sporting goods store, was sitting on the bathroom floor examining the weapon when it discharged, hitting his 8-year-old daughter, Madison. The child was standing a few feet away, watching West's girlfriend put on makeup.The shotgun blast tore away Madison's right arm just above the elbow, severely damaged a kidney and left a scar the size of a baseball on her side.

The child has had to learn to write with her left hand and dress and bathe with one arm. She can't ride a bike or tie her shoes.

"I look at her every day, and she's scarred for life," said Genielle West, who is divorced from Jeffrey West and lives with her daughter in Oceanside. "He was selfish. He didn't think...." But West's attorney, Robison Harley, has said the shooting was "nothing more than a tragic accident" that left his client traumatized, depressed and remorseful.

"Prosecutors are trying to distort this into some kind of crime," he said in an earlier interview. "The fact is, it's still an accident.... We've got an innocent man. He's a model parent."

Family members described West, a security alarm salesman, as a responsible father who doted on his daughter. In the days after the shooting, he was at her side in the hospital. He would wash her hair and help nurses as they treated her.

Free on $100,000 bail, West has lost his partial custody rights and is allowed one monitored visit a week with his children.

While prosecutors agree that West didn't intend to harm his daughter, they consider his actions so reckless that they qualify as a crime.

Deputies who searched his home and car reported finding a second shotgun and a rifle in the house and a handgun in his car. All were loaded and unsecured.

Jan Costello, a professor at Loyola Marymount Law School who specializes in child and family law, said the case explores a common theme in law -- that parents should be smart enough to realize when they've put their children at risk.

"A crime doesn't necessarily need to be an intentional act," Costello said. "Even if the child wasn't actually hurt, you could still make an argument that they were put at risk.

"This is the sort of situation where you say, 'Hey, you should've known and you should've prevented that.' "

Richard Cabral, a Southern California field representative of the National Rifle Assn., sees the incident differently.

"Accidents do happen. I don't think he acted recklessly," Cabral said. "I don't consider it a criminal act."

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