SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – A former western Massachusetts police chief who organized a gun fair was found not guilty of all charges in the 2008 death of an 8-year-old boy who accidentally shot himself in the head with an Uzi submachine gun.
Edward Fleury cried and hugged his attorney and family Friday after he was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter and three counts of furnishing machine guns to minors in the death of Christopher Bizilj on Oct. 26, 2008. Several of Christopher's relatives quickly left the courtroom without commenting.
The former Pelham, Mass., police chief 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," the 53-year-old 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."
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, of Ashford, Conn., was shooting a 9 mm micro Uzi at pumpkins when the gun kicked back and shot him in the head.
The jury was shown a graphic video of the shooting, taken by Christopher's father, that led to a collective gasp in the courtroom.
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 charges against Fleury carried up to 50 years in prison.
The jury returned the verdict on its first full day of deliberations.
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.
Charles Bizilj testified about the aftermath of the shooting.
"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 ad 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 website.
"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 divorced in 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.
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