SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — A gun fair organizer was acquitted of manslaughter and other charges Friday in the 2008 death of an 8-year-old boy who accidentally shot himself in the head with an Uzi at a machine gun expo in western Massachusetts.
A Hampden Superior Court jury found former Pelham, Mass., Police Chief Edward Fleury not guilty of involuntary manslaughter and three counts of furnishing machine guns to minors in the death of Christopher Bizilj of Ashford, Conn. The charges carry up to 50 years in prison.
Fleury’s firearms training company co-sponsored the annual Machine Gun Shoot and Firearms Expo at the Westfield Sportsman’s Club, about 10 miles west of Springfield. Christopher was shooting a 9 mm micro Uzi at pumpkins on Oct. 26, 2008, when the gun kicked back and shot him in the head. The jury was shown a graphic video of the accident, taken by the boy’s father, that led to a collective gasp in the courtroom.
The 53-year-old Fleury cried and hugged his attorney and his family after the verdicts were read, while several of Christopher’s relatives walked quickly out of the courtroom without commenting.
Fleury said he regretted holding the machine gun shoot and will never do it again.
“I want to express my heartfelt sympathy to the Bizilj family,” Fleury said in a courthouse hallway to a throng of TV cameras and reporters. “It was always meant to be an educational event for people and it’s unfortunate this terrible accident happened.”
He said his arrest and the trial were devastating to him, and that he would rather be “dropped into hell than go through this again.”
His wife, Jacalyn, added, “I’m glad to have my husband back. He’s an innocent man.”
One juror declined to immediately comment Friday, and messages were left for several other jury members.
Prosecutor William Bennett said he wouldn’t have done anything differently. He said he believed the organizers of the event were the people responsible for the boy’s death
“We had a fair trial,” Bennett said. “We were able to make our case. The jury has spoken. We will live with that verdict.”
Asked why Christopher’s father, who let his two sons fire the Uzi, wasn’t charged, Bennett said, “I thought he was punished enough.”
The 12 jurors heard testimony over seven days and began deliberating Thursday afternoon.
Bennett said he will now consider what to do with the cases of two co-defendants, Domenico Spano of New Milford, Conn., and Carl Giuffre of Hartford, Conn., who have machine gun licenses and brought the Uzi and other automatic weapons to the expo that day. Both have pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
Bennett said he will be meeting with a judge on Tuesday to discuss those cases.
Bennett had argued that Fleury was criminally reckless in running the event because he allowed children to illegally shoot machine guns under the supervision of a firing range officer who was 15 at the time and didn’t have a firearms license or certification.
Fleury’s lawyer, Rosemary Curran Scapicchio, denied the allegations and blamed the boy’s father, emergency room Dr. Charles Bizilj, for allowing Christopher and his then-11-year-old brother Colin to shoot such a dangerous weapon. Scapicchio noted that Charles Bizilj signed a waiver at the expo acknowledging the risks, including death, and absolving anyone of liability if something bad happened.
The teenage range officer, Michael Spano, also wasn’t charged.
Charles Bizilj testified about the aftermath of the accident.
“Chris was on the ground. I ran over to him,” Bizilj testified. “His eyes were open. … I tried to talk to him and he didn’t respond. I put my hand behind his head to pick him up and there was a large portion of his cranium missing.”
Bizilj said he thought the event would be safe and well-supervised. Bennett asked him if he had concerns about safety that day. “You can imagine this has gone through my head a thousand times,” Bizilj testified.
The machine gun shoot drew hundreds of people from as far away as Maine and Virginia to the Sportsman’s Club’s 375-acre compound. An advertisement said it would include machine gun demonstrations and rentals and free handgun lessons.
“It’s all legal & fun — No permits or licenses required!!!!” read an ad on the club’s Web site.
“You will be accompanied to the firing line with a Certified Instructor to guide you. But You Are In Control — “FULL AUTO ROCK & ROLL,” the ad said.
Bennett said the ads falsely said no permits or licenses were required. He said state law bars children from shooting machine guns.
Scapicchio said there’s an exemption in state law that allows minors to shoot certain automatic weapons if they’re supervised by someone with a firearms license, but Bennett said the exemption doesn’t apply to machine guns.
Charles and Suzanne Bizilj, who got divorced last July, filed a lawsuit alleging negligence against the Westfield Sportsman’s Club, Fleury and two others. It was settled last month for about $700,000, but Fleury wasn’t part of the settlement, Scapicchio said.
Last year, the Sportsman’s Club settled criminal allegations by agreeing to pay a $1,000 fine and donate $10,000 to children’s charities.
Fleury was chief for two decades at the small police department in Pelham, about 7 miles east of Amherst. He went out on leave after the shooting accident, never returned to duty and eventually retired.
In 2003, Pelham officials took undisclosed administrative action against Fleury after he discharged a loaded rifle during a gun safety class he was teaching. No one was injured and Fleury said in a public apology he would take steps to prevent similar incidents.