Dick Cheney's potential legal exposure
In light of Tuesday's revelation that lawyer Harry Whittington has suffered a heart attack as a consequence of being shot by Vice President Dick Cheney during a hunting tgrip, questions have arisen regarding the legal consequences Mr. Cheney might confront as a result of the incident.
Here's an assessment of the potential legal exposure the vice-president could face -- from a Texas prosecutor, a former federal prosecutor, and western states defense lawyers who have handled hunting accident cases, based on the facts as we now know them.
If Mr. Whittington were to die as a result of the shooting, these legal authorities believe Cheney would probably not be prosecuted. But if the local district attorney decided to pursue charges, the most likely would be either manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide. Texas no longer has an involuntary manslaughter statute.
Manslaughter, the more serious of the two, requires proof of recklessness -- consciously disregarding a known risk which is likely to cause harm. These legal experts say the facts of this accident don't meet that test. Many said it would require evidence of something as serious as a hunter knowing another hunter was in the potential line of fire and shooting anyway. (Recklessness would be something like Saddam Hussein shooting weapons into the air, one lawyer said. Another said it would take an action like a scene in a movie when the bad guy shoots at another guy to make him "dance.")
The less serious charge would be criminally negligent homicide. While in some states that's a misdemeanor, it's the lowest-range felony in Texas, punishable by up to two years' confinement. The required element is proof of gross negligence -- a total failure to be mindful of potential consequences.
However, all these experts agreed that Cheney could almost certainly face civil liability, if the Whittingtons decided to sue. The standard here is much lower -- simple negligence. The question would then be, what would a careful hunter do in a similar situation. He could potentially be sued whether or not Mr. Whittington dies.
Lawyers in western states who have handled fatal hunting accidents said authorities often decline to bring criminal charges. One even defended a man who mistakenly shot and killed his own son. But these experts also say this is very much the call of the local prosecutor, who, if the authorities were to decide to proceed, would take the case to a local grand jury.
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