A Snohomish County jury deliberated for about four hours Tuesday before acquitting Richard Peters of first-degree manslaughter. Instead, the jurors convicted Peters of the less serious crime of second-degree manslaughter.
Jurors weren't convinced that Peters acted recklessly when he shot his daughter, Stormy, in the forehead on Nov. 16, 2008. The second-degree manslaughter verdict meant they found that Peters was negligent by failing to be aware of the risks of handling a firearm around his daughter, not that he deliberately ignored the risks of his actions.
Tuesday's verdict brought Peters, his wife, family and defense attorney to tears.
"I think they are highly relieved," defense attorney Laura Martin told The Herald. "His family is just very grateful he'll be coming home in a reasonable period of time."
Peters has maintained that the shooting was an accident. He was drinking that day. He testified Monday that he didn't believe the gun was loaded or that there was a bullet in the chamber. He also told investigators that he had removed the magazine from the gun.
He admitted that he must have pulled the trigger because the gun went off, but he didn't know how the shooting happened.
"This was a horrible tragedy. The only thing to make this tragedy worse is to convict this man of a crime," Martin said in closing arguments Monday. She is a lawyer with the Snohomish County Public Defenders Association.
Martin asked jurors to look critically at the criminal investigation, saying that detectives early on jumped to the conclusion that the shooting wasn't an accident.
"I think the jury saw that my client was taking full responsibility for what happened that night," Martin said Tuesday.
This was the second trial for Peters, who in 2009 was acquitted of second-degree murder, but convicted of first-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to more than 13 years in prison.
Peters won a new trial in 2011 when the state Court of Appeals ruled that a Snohomish County trial judge erred in giving the 2009 jury an instruction that lowered the burden of proof to convict Peters of manslaughter.
Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Paul Stern moved forward to retry Peters "because he killed his little girl, who didn't deserve to die."
Stern didn't say much about Tuesday's verdict.
"Twelve jurors heard the evidence and drew one conclusion. Twelve jurors heard the same evidence and drew a different conclusion," he said.
Stern had urged jurors to find that Peters deliberately ignored the risks of being intoxicated and handling firearms around his daughter. Peters had been drinking vodka before the shooting. Tests revealed that his blood alcohol level was .11 about seven hours after the shooting.
"Being responsible and being held responsible are two different things," Stern told jurors Monday during closing arguments. "He may feel responsible. I want you to hold him responsible. It's a horrible tragedy, but it can be a tragedy and a crime at the same time."
Peters owned several firearms and had taken gun safety training classes. He also had taught his children about gun safety, he said.
The night of the shooting he asked Stormy to retrieve his .45-caliber handgun from the night stand in his bedroom.
She brought her dad the gun.
Peters testified that he removed the magazine from the gun. He believed it was safe, Martin said.
Stern told jurors that Peters wasn't paying attention. He was drunk and ignored the golden rules of handling firearms, such as always assume a gun is loaded and never point a firearm at anyone the shooter isn't willing to destroy. The deputy prosecutor theorized that Peters mistakenly grabbed the wrong gun -- one from which he'd already removed the magazine.
Stormy was hit in forehead. The little girl crumpled to the ground. Her dad began to scream.
He was "in a state of total disbelief as Stormy Peters was lifeless before her father's eyes," Martin told the jury.
The first-grader died the next day at a Seattle hospital.
Peters has been behind bars since 2008. He was moved to prison in 2009 after he was first convicted.
He bowed his head and wept Tuesday.
Peters testified that he thinks of his daughter every day.
He is scheduled to be sentenced later this month. He faces up to five years in prison -- much of which he's already served.
"Regardless of this outcome, my client is going to have to live with this for the rest of his life," Martin said.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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