Child killed in Highland Springs shooting

Charles Willis (back to the camera), a community advocate, comforted Victor F. Covelli (far left) after Covelli's granddaughter was shot by a sibling after he found Covelli's gun in Covelli's Henrico County home on Oct. 8.

A Henrico County grandfather whose .22-caliber pistol was used by his 7-year-old grandson to shoot and kill his 5-year-old granddaughter in October was acquitted of child abuse on Friday.

Victor F. Covelli, 59, said he was pleased with the outcome, but it’s hard to enjoy while he’s still mourning.

“All this is nothing,” he said in the hallway of the Henrico County courthouse, “when I’ve lost a grandchild.”

While the threat of jail time is gone, Covelli is still working to repair the relationship with his daughter, who did not attend the trial nor the hearing Friday.

It was her son, who was 7 at the time, who pulled the trigger, and her daughter, Camira Harris, who was killed. Her three other children, ages 5 through 9 including Camira’s twin, witnessed the tragedy.

Police responded around 12:30 p.m. on Oct. 8 after the shooting was reported in the 200 block of South Holly Avenue, which is in Highland Springs. Camira was taken to a hospital, but it was too late.

Hours later, Covelli was distraught and still had the girl’s dried blood on his face. He wore a hospital scrub shirt because his own clothes were soaked with blood from carrying Camira from the home.

A one-day trial was held on May 30 after Covelli pleaded not guilty. The prosecutor argued that Covelli was responsible for the death because he left a loaded gun where the children could easily find it. At the conclusion of the evidence, defense counsel Jeffrey L. Everhart made a motion to strike the charge against his client, saying the prosecution failed to prove its case.

“While the commonwealth’s case might show negligence it doesn’t show malice or intent to cause harm,” Everhart said.

Henrico Circuit Judge James S. Yoffy continued the case until Friday morning, allowing Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Toni Randall and Everhart to argue their positions in motions filed ahead of the hearing.

“The issue of this case is the awareness of the danger,” Yoffy said. “This was a close case. I can’t tell you how I’ve struggled with this case. It’s kept me up at night.”

Ultimately, he found that there was “not enough evidence to show this was a willful act.”

Covelli was not home when the shooting occurred, according to evidence presented at trial. He worked as a craftsman and handyman, and had a job down the street that Monday. His daughter’s five children usually stayed with him only on the weekends, but stayed an extra day that week because they were off school.

The children are no longer allowed to stay the night, Covelli said after Friday’s hearing, but they still visit on weekends. He calls them his babies.

He arrived back home shortly after the shooting, returning to retrieve a tool he needed, according to his sister’s testimony. Jeanie Covelli, his sister who also lives in the home, said she didn’t know there was a gun inside.

She testified that she heard the pop shortly after she’d checked on the children, who had been playing and watching television in Victor Covelli’s room.

In an interview with detectives, Covelli said he had the handgun for years. He said it had been in the garage, but he brought it back into the house after several attempted break-ins of the garage about a month before the fatal shooting. A man was charged in those incidents, according to police testimony.

The gun was stowed in a drawer near Covelli’s bed. It was loaded with a full magazine and a bullet in the chamber, and the manual safety was missing, according to a forensic gun expert.

Randall argued that Covelli knew the risks when he left the gun unattended and easily accessible to the children, who were known to look through drawers in search of candy.

Covelli had previously instructed his grandchildren not to point guns, toy or otherwise, at anyone’s head. Some two years before the incident, he had shown the pistol to the two oldest children and told them not to touch it.

“The defendant was aware, and should have been aware, that injury was likely; he was aware of the location and firing potential of the handgun, he was aware that he had not told the other adults where the gun was located, he was aware of the children’s presence in his home, he was aware of the children’s tendency to rummage, and he was aware of their lack of gun safety understanding,” Randall wrote in her motion. “Such awareness, paired with inaction, reveals a reckless disregard for the children’s safety.”

After the shooting and after the hearing Friday, Covelli said he should have known better than to leave the gun where he did.

“The requisite standard, however, is not hindsight,” Everhart argued in his successful motion for acquittal. “It is foresight.”

After the verdict, Covelli said he’d never keep another gun.

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Twitter: @AliRockettRTD

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