When a gunman ends a crime spree by killing himself, our instinct for retribution, and our quest to hold accountable anyone who played any role in the run-up to the crime, can lead to tricky questions of criminal culpability. The what-if questions — if this or that had not happened, would the crime have been averted? — carry enormous emotional weight for the victims, family, friends, and all others traumatized by the violence.
Those are the questions at stake in a case arising from a shooting I’ve followed closely, and reported on in preparation for an eventual book, after the Christmas Eve 2012 ambush of volunteer firefighters in Webster, New York. Now, thanks to a case with remarkable parallels in Colorado, we can see how one federal judge answered the questions about the degree to which others bear blame when they supply the gun used in a crime spree.
In the Webster case, William Spengler killed his sister, then started a fire that ultimately consumed a row of houses, including his own. The fire was a trap for firefighters. He shot four, killing two. Then he killed himself. Spengler had been out of prison since 1998, after serving 17 years for manslaughter in the beating death of his grandmother. Barred from owning a gun, he armed himself with a shotgun and assault rifle by recruiting a neighbor to buy them for him two years before his final shooting spree, federal and state authorities have charged. That neighbor, Dawn Nguyen, a 24-year-old college student at the time of Spengler’s attack, is the only person facing charges related to the shootings.
That makes Nguyen a target in two ways: for allegedly committing the crime of lying about the ultimate purchaser, and more generally — in the eyes of many who grieve the losses that Spengler inflicted — for helping set in motion the crime itself. One of Spengler’s victims, firefighter Ted Scardino, spoke in favor of legislation that would toughen the penalties for so-called straw purchases, as I reported in this American Lawyer story last year. Scardino and others are plainly offended that the law treats such gun transactions as fairly minor technical violations, rather than as critical elements in the commission of violent felonies. Scardino told me in no uncertain terms that he holds Nguyen responsible for his life-altering injuries, and those suffered by his friends: “By her buying it and giving it to him, that’s what led to this incident.”
And that brings us to the Colorado case. On Monday, a federal judge sentenced a 23-year-old woman, Stevie Marie Vigil, to 27 months in prison for providing the weapon used by parolee Evan Ebel in the killings of the state’s prisons chief and a pizza delivery man. Ebel also shot a Texas sheriff’s deputy before leading police on a chase and dying in a shootout (The Denver Post story on Vigil’s sentencing includes videos of the horrifying shooting of the deputy and of the chase). Prosecutors sought a six-year term for Vigil, writing, “When you give a handgun to a violent felon, it is reasonably foreseeable the felon will use the gun for violent purposes” (read their motion here). The wounded deputy, speaking in court, argued that Vigil should be charged with his assault and the two murders.
But the judge — ruling there was no evidence Vigil knew of Ebel’s plans, and that Ebel would have been able to get the gun regardless — refused to levy a sentence above the maximum recommended in federal sentencing-guidelines for Vigil’s charges and circumstances. The Post quotes one victim’s father criticizing the sentence, and the Post itself editorialized that the sentence was too light.
The evidence in the Nguyen case isn’t fully revealed yet, so it’s hard to know how closely the two cases parallel each other in the critical details: the young women’s knowledge of how the guns might be used. If Nguyen goes to trial, rather than plea bargaining, we may learn more than we know now about her role, although excellent reporting by the Democrat & Chronicle‘s Gary Craig has revealed that Spengler used his suicide note to cast blame on Nguyen’s mother (not that Spengler’s word counts for much).
Regardless, both cases confront hard questions about moral and legal blame — and the public reaction that accompanies those questions — when one person helps another, however unwittingly, commit a terrible crime. We’re all angry about what happened and want to hold everyone accountable, within reason. It’s that last phrase where public opinion is likely to split, and where careful reporting of the facts can at least inform the debate so that it isn’t driven solely by anger.