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No jail time for Bingham following guilty plea

Suspended sentence, gun safety, probation ordered following misdemeanor

Posted: March 9, 2012 - 12:06am
Seth Bingham, left, walks past his brother Joseph "Joe" Bingham in Juneau District Court Thursday morning. Joe lost part of his right leg as the two brothers were driving home from a day at the Hank Harmon Rifle Range when Seth disassembled his pistol in the truck, a round went off, striking Joe in the femoral artery in his leg.   Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Seth Bingham, left, walks past his brother Joseph "Joe" Bingham in Juneau District Court Thursday morning. Joe lost part of his right leg as the two brothers were driving home from a day at the Hank Harmon Rifle Range when Seth disassembled his pistol in the truck, a round went off, striking Joe in the femoral artery in his leg.

The man who accidently shot his brother in the leg last year pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor weapons misconduct charge on Thursday and was sentenced in Juneau District Court.

“I’m at your mercy,” Seth Bingham, 32, said before the judge before he imposed the sentence.

Judge Thomas Nave accepted a plea agreement that was reached with prosecutors and imposed 180 days of jail time with the full 180 days suspended, meaning there’s no time to serve, and one year of probation.

Bingham will also be required to attend a gun safety course and is not allowed to possess firearms except for work purposes during probation.

Brothers Seth and Joseph “Joe” Bingham, 27, were driving home from a day at the Hank Harmon Rifle Range in December of last year when Seth disassembled his pistol in the truck. A round went off and struck Joe in the femoral artery in his right leg, which had to be amputated above the knee as a result of the accident.

In court, Bingham’s attorney Julie Willoughby described the incident as tragic.

“The court knows from the charging documents this is a tragic situation that could have ended up much worse, and thankfully it did not,” she said. “There’s nothing that the court can do, your honor, that would be worse than what he’s gone through this whole time.”

The district attorney’s office had charged Bingham in early January with one felony count of second-degree domestic violence assault and one misdemeanor count of fourth-degree weapons misconduct. The plea deal dismisses the felony assault charge.

District Attorney David Brower also described the incident as tragic and told the judge Bingham is not the only person to find himself in this situation.

“If Mr. Bingham thinks he’s the only one who’s had gun accidents like this, he’s not,” Brower said.

Brower pointed to a previous incident where a woman accidently shot a gun and the stray bullet struck a person.

“She got the same charge, and she was sentenced to some time in jail, and I think ... they could both be viewed as accidents,” he said.

He said the other incident was more reckless because there was alcohol involved, which was not the case for Bingham.

Brower added, “If a gun goes off accidently and nothing happens, then nothing happens. Some years ago, a person ran a red light, and if you run a red light and a police officer is there, you get a ticket. If there’s nobody there, you think, ‘I’ll be more careful.’ In that case, he hit a car and a person died, and so there was a charge. Things happen, and some people do things intentionally, and that’s why there are more serious crimes and more serious penalties. In this case, I’d ask the court to accept the agreement.”

Nave said he believed Seth Bingham when he said he didn’t shoot his brother on purpose.

“I don’t think you did this on purpose and that you probably didn’t even do it recklessly, but it certainly was negligent,” Nave said. “You just don’t point a gun, whether it’s loaded or unloaded, at anybody’s direction, and probably no one knows that better than you.”

Nave said he could empathize with the situation and said probably many in the community could, too.

“My first reaction to it when I read about it in the news was, how many years had I been with men hunting and been out at the gun range doing the same thing you were doing that day,” he said. “How many times have I thought, ‘Boy, that was a close one, and I really should pay more attention.’ Anybody that’s handled guns, as you have, as I have, as many of us have, had sort of close calls that you recognize later can be tragic. I don’t really put you in a different category.”

Nave said he thought the sentence is sufficient to deter Bingham from reckless or negligent behavior in the future, and addresses the rehabilitation aspect by requiring him to complete a gun safety course.

“Still at the same time, I think that it probably accurately reflects the level of community condemnation, which is another way to put it is reaffirmation of societal norms, what do people in the community think about folks that do this kind of thing,” the judge said. “I think people in this community understand that these things happen, and that they happen to people who are stellar citizens otherwise, perfectly well-adjusted people, loving husbands, the best of us. And we all recognize that it could happen to us too if we’re not extraordinarily careful.”

Nave said he wouldn’t make this a court order, but he hoped Seth Bingham would tell his story to middle school students who take gun safety courses, a reference to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Hunter Education and Firearm Safety Course program (for more on this program, please see page C1).

“It would be of such benefit to those kids if you told your story,” Nave said. “You don’t have to do that, but I think if you want to give something back, in the sense of preventing this from happening in the future, that those kids are really going to be taken by your story.”

Bingham said he would like to do that in the future when he’s ready to talk about it, but as for now, it remains difficult to talk about with his counselor, whom he sees several times a week.

“It’s still a struggle to talk to him about it,” he said. “As I prepare and overcome it, that’s something I think should happen as well,” he said.

Joe Bingham, who was sitting in the courtroom behind his brother, along with several other family members, declined to comment after the hearing was over. As he was walking out of the courtroom on his crutches, Joe slung his arm over his brother’s shoulder and gave him a pat on the back.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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