WHITEVILLE — Nearly two years after a Charlotte teenager died and two others were wounded in a mysterious shooting in eastern North Carolina, the Columbus County district attorney has determined a gun malfunction is to blame.
The bullet that struck and killed Jasmine Thar, a 16-year-old Ardrey Kell High student, over Christmas break in 2011 was fired from a rifle that accidentally discharged, District Attorney Jonathan David said in a Monday news conference with Thar’s family.
The gun’s owner, James Anthony Blackwell, will not be charged, David said. Ballistic test results from the FBI and SBI show there is no evidence that Blackwell intentionally fired the rifle, the prosecutor said.
Questions about the gun, a .308 Remington Model 700 that has been the subject of some 75 lawsuits nationwide, still linger.
The attorney for Thar’s family told the Charlotte Observer after the meeting that the controversial case is one of manufacturer’s negligence and that they will sue the gunmaker, Madison-based Remington Arms Co.
“If you bump your finger with the trigger and you don’t pull the trigger, it shouldn’t be going off,” attorney Willie Gary said. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”
Thar was killed Dec. 23, 2011, while visiting her godmother Treka McMillian and friend Jah-Mesha McMillian in the town of Chadbourn, about 140 miles east of Charlotte. As they were walking across McMillian’s front yard, a single bullet came from the house across the street, where Blackwell lived at the time.
Blackwell told police the gun fired without him pulling the trigger. David declined to say whether the man’s hand was near the trigger. David said he didn’t want to influence civil litigation.
Gary, a Florida-based litigator known for successful lawsuits against the some of the nation’s largest companies, said he will rely on the district attorney’s investigation to help build the family’s civil case. “The major part of the case has only just begun,” Gary said.
Remington Arms Co. did not return repeated phone calls on Monday.
The manufacturer has previously denied accusations that the model contains a defect. The gun is safe when firearm safety precautions are used properly, the company has said.
A 2010 report on CNBC found that Remington has, at least twice, considered recalling the weapon, but later abandoned the idea. The company feared a recall would undercut its public messages stressing firearm safety, the report said.
Internal documents show that in 1948 — before the gun went on the market — the gun’s designer Merle “Mike” Walker proposed a design change to prevent the trigger’s internal parts from falling out of alignment, CNBC reported.
The network said the added cost for Walker’s “trigger block” came to pennies per gun. With the rifle already over budget, CNBC said, the company decided against making a change.
Relatives of Thar said Monday they want Remington to pay for the young student’s untimely death.
“There must be some responsibility and accountability,” Thar’s grandfather, Bernie Coaxum, said. “It doesn’t negate the loss of my granddaughter Jasmine … but there has to be someone holding them accountable.”
The focus on Remington represents a shift for Thar’s family and civil rights groups who have spent more than a year urging prosecutors to press charges against Blackwell. They believed the shooting was racially motivated after investigators told them they had found evidence in the Blackwell’s home. Blackwell is white; all the victims of the shooting were black.
Charlotte-area activists launched an online petition that garnered more than 70,000 signatures and rallies in their support. Relatives as recently as last week had met with the district attorney and expressed unhappiness at how long it was taking to get answers.
David said the lengthy wait was the result of backlogs at understaffed FBI and SBI offices. Currently, SBI test results can take up to eight months. The FBI released the results of the ballistic test and a comprehensive background check on Blackwell to the district attorney in April. David said he immediately called family attorneys to arrange a meeting.
After 90 minutes of reviewing the long-awaited forensic tests, family members said they were satisfied with the district attorney’s decision not to prosecute Blackwell.
Nothing in Blackwell’s background check, which included interviews with past employers, friends and family, indicated that he had harbored racist sentiments. Several witnesses interviewed by police described him as screaming in anguish after the shooting and expressing remorse. David said the window the bullet passed through was shut and the blinds were closed, meaning Blackwell wasn’t taking aim.
Wendell Hardie, the father of Jah-mesha McMillian, who was injured in the shooting, said the DA’s presentation made it clear Blackwell “didn’t mean for it” to happen.
Thar’s family plans to host a rally to raise awareness about gun violence issues in Whiteville on June 22.
“It was a long process with an unusual case,” Coaxum said. “It’s human nature for us to be cautious and suspicious during a tragedy … like this.”