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Prosecutor: 6-year-old won't be charged after shooting teacher

Posted at 7:02 AM, Mar 09, 2023

Authorities in the Virginia city where a 6-year-old shot and wounded his teacher will not seek criminal charges against the child, the local prosecutor told NBC News Wednesday, in a decision that was anticipated by legal experts.

But Newport News Commonwealth's Attorney Howard Gwynn said his office has yet to decide if any adults will be held criminally accountable.

Newport News police have said that the boy used his mother's 9mm handgun in the Jan. 6 shooting at Richneck Elementary School. A lawyer for the child's mother has previously stated that the weapon, which was legally purchased, was secured on a high closet shelf and had a lock on it.

Gwynn did not immediately respond to two phone messages and two emails from The Associated Press seeking comment.

He told NBC that the "prospect that a 6-year-old can stand trial is problematic" because he wouldn't have the competency to understand the legal system and what a charge means.

Gwynn told the news outlet that his office is still focusing on others besides the child.

"Once we analyze all the facts, we will charge any person or persons that we believe we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt committed a crime," he said.

The decision did not come as a surprise. Even though it is possible under Virginia law to criminally charge a 6-year-old child, legal experts said it would be highly unlikely that a prosecutor would even try.

A common-law doctrine known as the "infancy defense" holds that children under 7 cannot be prosecuted for a crime because they are too young to be capable of forming criminal intent. A judge also would have to find that the child was competent to stand trial, meaning that he could understand the legal proceedings and assist attorneys defending him.

"You have to be able to show that they understand the seriousness of it, planned it, and executed it," Julie McConnell, a law professor at the University of Richmond, told the AP. "It would be very hard to prove that a 6-year-old could understand that what he did could have permanent consequences," McConnell said.

She added: "The question is not how do we hold the child accountable? The question is how do we hold ourselves accountable as a society? How do we address the fact that it is so easy for children to get guns in the first place?"

Newport News police turned over their investigation to Gwynn's office last month. Police Chief Steve Drew said in February that he understands that "people would like to have a case open and shut — that's just not what we have here."

Drew described a complicated investigation that involved coordinating interviews with first-graders, which required permission from their parents as well as the expertise of a child psychologist.

Gwynn told the AP last month that the city's detectives handed over three binders of information to his office.

"It's a lot of information, and we're going to carefully review it as we do in every case," Gwynn said in February.

The decision to not charge the child is the latest development from the shooting, which sent shockwaves through the shipbuilding city of about 185,000 people near the Chesapeake Bay.

The 6-year-old boy, who has not been identified, shot first-grade teacher Abby Zwerner while she was teaching inside her classroom.

The police chief has repeatedly characterized the shooting as "intentional." Drew said there was no warning and no struggle before the child pointed the gun at Zwerner and fired one round, striking her in the hand and chest.

Zwerner, 25, hustled her students out of the classroom before being rushed to the hospital, where she stayed for nearly two weeks before she was released to continue recovering at home.