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Weber County man gets 90 days jail for brother's accidental death

Published January 15, 2013 1:31 pm

Court • Eric Charlton to speak to students about the dangers of mixing alcohol, firearms.
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Nephi • Eric Charlton will punish himself for a lifetime for the mistake he made on May 28, when, while under the influence of alcohol, he unintentionally shot and killed his younger brother during a camping trip.

Susanne Gustin, Charlton's attorney, said the 27-year-old West Haven man has made it his "life mission" to honor his brother, 17-year-old Cameron Charlton, by telling the community about the dangers of mixing alcohol and firearms.

But, that wasn't enough, said 4th District Judge James Brady on Tuesday.

Charlton, 27, needed to serve jail time for his reckless behavior, Brady said, despite pleas from his parents and family members who asked for the man not to be jailed.

"It seems to me if jail time is not imposed, it would send a message," Brady told Charlton during the sentencing review. "How much jail time is a quandary to me."

Brady last month sentenced Charlton to spend six months in jail, but allowed the defendant to remain free and return to his courtroom Tuesday with a detailed plan for how he might go about deterring similar crimes in the community.

Gustin told the judge that Charlton is scheduled to speak to students in schools in Weber and Davis counties about the dangers of mixing alcohol and firearms, along with organizations such as Youth Impact and Weber State University's Upward Bound program. He plans to take two days a week away from work to fulfill the speaking engagements, she said.

But Brady told Charlton that while he would cut the jail time in half because of his plans to speak about the accident, he still needed to serve some time in jail for the death of his brother.

"I can not ignore the fact that a life was taken," Brady said.

Charlton has until Friday to report to the Juab County jail and start serving his time.

He pleaded guilty in October to a class A misdemeanor count of negligent homicide and a class B misdemeanor count of carrying a weapon while under the influence of alcohol.

Prosecutors had originally charged Charlton with second-degree felony manslaughter. But following a September preliminary hearing, Brady reduced the count to a class A misdemeanor, finding that prosecutors had not met the burden to prove Charlton acted recklessly.

At that hearing, 17-year-old Jonathan Hummell testified that Eric Charlton had consumed two glasses of Captain Morgan rum mixed with cola, and the younger boys were also drinking on May 28 at Yuba Lake in Juab County.

The group had been telling ghost stories around the campfire and became spooked when they heard coyotes in the distance. Eric Charlton — a former Marine — grabbed his .45 caliber handgun.

Hummell testified that Charlton told his younger brother, "You know you're my brother when you can trust me with this," while swinging his arm across his body. The gun fired, and a bullet passed through Cameron's left temple.

Charlton had told law enforcement that he initially removed the magazine from the gun, and even pulled the slide back to show the teens that the weapon was empty earlier in the evening, court documents state. He showed the two teens different firearm techniques before replacing the magazine. He told police, however, that he did not remember charging the gun's chamber with a live round.

Gustin said it was possible that if the magazine was slammed into the gun with too much force, it could load a bullet into the chamber without the operator's knowledge.

Justin Bechaver, with the state's crime lab, has testified that about 30 percent of the time he forcefully loaded a magazine on Charlton's 1911 Springfield, a bullet was pushed into the chamber.

Trevor Charlton said after the hearing that his son wanted to avoid jail time because he is the sole provider for his wife and two small children.

"I don't want him to go to jail," Trevor Charlton said, his eyes filled with tears. "Because he's not a criminal. … It's been a nightmare for us. This isn't a crime, it's a tragedy."

Brady set a court date in July to review Charlton's community service efforts. Brady told Charlton that if he did not take the speaking engagements seriously, or failed to complete at least 90 presentations, he could impose the second half of his jail sentence.

Gustin said outside of court that despite the jail time, the judge could not possibly punish Charlton any more than he is already punishing himself.

"He beats himself up every single day," she said. "His journey is just beginning."

jmiller@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jm_miller