In this case, there are no winners or losers. Cameron Charlton is dead and he's not here anymore. We're never going to get the chance to know what he could have done with his life. —Juab County Attorney Jared Eldridge
NEPHI — Eric Charlton walked into the courtroom Tuesday with his newborn son in his arms.
His is still a face full of sadness, but as he showed off the child who is named for his younger brother, an occasional smile appeared.
At the hearing, a resolution was solidified that many hope will put the tragedy of Charlton's brother's death behind him and allow him to move forward.
Charlton, 27, pleaded guilty in 4th District Court Tuesday to negligent homicide, a class A misdemeanor, and carrying a weapon while under the influence of alcohol, a class B misdemeanor, in connection with the May 28 shooting death of his 17-year-old brother, Cameron.
As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors will defer sentencing to 4th District Judge James Brady but will recommend that the sentences for the two charges run concurrent with one another.
Charlton wiped at his eyes after entering the plea, visibly emotional but less so than during a preliminary hearing last month in which he sobbed for hours. He, his family and his attorney all believe Cameron Charlton's death was a "terrible accident."
"The victim's family is also the perpetrator's family," defense attorney Susanne Gustin said. "Their input should weigh heavily and they wanted it to be resolved. … The family understands this was a terrible accident."
The two brothers — who Gustin said were "close" and "loving" — and one of Cameron Charlton's friends were sitting around a campfire that night in May during an outing to Yuba Lake. What had been a large group had slowly dwindled as the conversation turned to ghosts and poltergeists. The trio was "spooked out," and Eric Charlton retrieved a gun from his truck.
A former Marine, Charlton emptied and cleared the weapon, according to court testimony, before he demonstrated some shooting techniques to the teenage boys. He replaced the gun's magazine and holstered the weapon, but got it back out later and, at one point as he talked about trust, he swung the gun out and it went off, killing Cameron Charlton.
Though charged with manslaughter, a second-degree felony, the judge opted to order Charlton to instead stand trial on the reduced misdemeanor negligent homicide charge. Juab County Attorney Jared Eldridge filed a motion soon after asking Brady to reconsider the decision, but ultimately decided to resolve the case.
"I think, in this situation, it's a fair resolution," Eldridge said. "Of course I disagree with the ruling of the judge — I don't see how you could not call this reckless — but given the facts of this particular case, I feel this resolution is something I can deal with."
Gustin expressed her appreciation to Eldridge for the plea offer and to the community that has rallied around her client. A number of Charlton's family and friends have attended his court hearings, and she said she has a number of letters to give to the judge praising her client's character.
Still, the experience has been a "nightmare" for Charlton, Gustin said, and he and his family are happy to avoid months of hearings.
"Things are looking better for him," she said. "Things are looking up. He's got a new baby, he's got this taken care of. … He feels responsible for what happened. He just didn't feel responsible for the manslaughter charge. … We're happy with how this turned out."
She said Charlton has no criminal history and she will ask the judge not to impose any jail time against her client. "He's punished himself already and he will continue to punish himself for the rest of his life," she said.
"Sentencing is a good opportunity for family to begin healing," Eldridge said. "This family has been struggling. It's time for them to get some closure and for the healing process to start."
Having the same family impacted on both sides of the case made it "very unique" and, at times, difficult to balance, the prosecutor said, adding that there was a need for accountability, but also a need for understanding.
"In this case, there are no winners or losers," he said. "Cameron Charlton is dead and he's not here anymore. We're never going to get the chance to know what he could have done with his life."
Sentencing has been set for Dec. 20. Charlton could face up to a year in jail on the negligent homicide charge and six months in jail on the weapon-related charge.