Journee' Campbell wears a pink helmet adorned with lollipop and party hat stickers, yet she's too young to be riding a tricycle. The 1-year-old wears the helmet to day care and running around her family’s apartment, growing attached to her newest accessory.
For the girl, the helmet is also key to her recovery from a life-altering incident: a bullet that struck the right side of her face in November.
The tiny finger that pulled the trigger that shattered Campbell's skull belonged to her 2-year-old brother, who somehow found the gun inside a car where they were sitting with their mother. Crystal Kinchen, 23, landed in jail for two nights afterward, accused of failing to properly supervise her children.
The mother of a 1-year-old girl shot in the face by her 2-year-old brother faces a cruelty t…
Louisiana ranks among the worst nationally for unintentional or accidental shootings of children, many of which are self-inflicted or caused by another child. But the law enforcement response to these tragedies varies sharply by jurisdiction and case.
In Louisiana, incidents where children have unintentionally fired guns, shooting themselves or others, adults have not consistently been held responsible by law enforcement. For example, in more than half of the 12 cases across the state where children 8 or younger shot themselves or were shot by another child from 2014 to 2016, nobody was arrested.
For Kinchen, whose jailtime overlapped with her daughter's surgery, that feels painfully unfair. She said she had no idea her friend had a gun in his car when he picked up her family. She also notes police have confirmed that it was his gun, and he legally had it.
“I really didn’t know they were going to arrest me, but I had a feeling that they would,” Kinchen said in an interview with The Advocate.
She said she knows other people who weren't arrested after a child was accidentally shot.
A moment's distraction
Kinchen and her children ended up in the car with the gun after she had a fight with her boyfriend. Kinchen had asked for a ride from her friend to get some distance because she said she didn’t like to fight in front of the children.
While the driver stopped to run into a Family Dollar store, Kinchen’s son found the man’s gun. Kinchen admits at that moment she was looking at Facebook on her phone in the front passenger seat and that her children were in the back seat not buckled or in car seats — but she also said she didn’t know there was a gun in the vehicle. The last time she had glanced at her children, they were playing together in the back seat, she said.
“If I knew the gun was in the car, then we wouldn’t have been with him,” Kinchen said. “I’m scared of guns.”
Kinchen said she remembers hearing a "pow," but it didn’t cross her mind that the sound was a gunshot. To her horror, however, her friend — who had only walked a few feet toward the store — quickly realized what the noise had been, and they rushed her daughter to the hospital.
A Baton Rouge police officer found Kinchen and her friend at the hospital, where they were both taken into custody for questioning, Kinchen said. Seven hours after the shot was fired, Kinchen was booked into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on a count of second-degree cruelty to juveniles, a felony. Her friend, who could not be contacted by The Advocate, was not arrested.
In Kinchen’s arrest report, the officer writes that her two children were “not secured in child seats or seat belts,” and that Kinchen “admitted to being preoccupied on her cellphone.”
Police also noted in the report that during an earlier stop at a gas station, Kinchen’s 2-year-old son “climbed into the driver’s seat, began playing with the steering wheel and put the vehicle in gear” but the vehicle was not on.
The man told police the weapon had been between the driver’s side seat and the center console, the report says, meaning that “due to the location of the weapon in the car, it was only accessible to the child when he was alone with his mother” or the man was outside the vehicle.
The outcomes vary in such incidents, according to law enforcement, simply because the facts of investigations differ so significantly from case to case that there is no way to create protocol or predict their criminality. Legal and law enforcement experts agree that they are some of the worst, and most difficult, to handle: Families are grieving, witnesses are often children and communities are horrified.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said it's especially tough in Louisiana, which lacks a statute specifically addressing when children get their hands on a firearm. Often, adults are arrested on negligent homicide or negligent injuring counts, and proving those crimes or determining it was a true accident is “a difficult burden for us,” Moore said.
Journee' Campbell's story is shockingly similar to others across Louisiana. A child is unint…
Based on the known facts of Kinchen's case, LSU law professor Ken Levy said he thinks a second-degree cruelty to juveniles count is questionable at best. The law states that second-degree cruelty to juveniles is “the intentional or criminally negligent mistreatment or neglect by anyone over the age of 17 to any child under the age of 17 which causes serious bodily injury or neurological impairment to that child.”
“What it all boils down to, did she grossly deviate from the ordinary standard of care?” Levy asked. “They’re saying just because she was inattentive, she was on her phone, that constitutes a gross deviation, and I’m not sure I buy that.”
To arrest a parent or caretaker after accidental shootings, officers must find probable cause of a crime, a decision that carries a lot of discretion.
But for gun safety group Moms Demand Action, that discretion too often perpetuates irresponsibility in incidents it believes are preventable.
“Regardless of if it's just within Baton Rouge, the state, or the nation, we don't see people always held accountable,” said Lori Maraist, a Lafayette member of Moms Demand Action. “It's an unintentional shooting, but it's not an accident.”
Campbell is one of 12 children 8 or younger injured or killed in accidental shootings in Louisiana between 2014 and 2016 where a child pulled the trigger, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that records gun violence around the U.S., primarily through news reports.
Yet how these families’ tragedies were handled by the criminal justice system is inconsistent across jurisdictions.
A dad in New Orleans in July 2015 was arrested after his 5-year-old son found the man’s fully loaded .38-caliber weapon in their house and shot himself in the hand. According to New Orleans police, the man hid the gun under the blade of a fan on a window sill behind a chair, but the boy found the weapon.
A mother and her friend in Baton Rouge were arrested after the mother’s 6-year-old son shot her 3-year-old daughter in the face in May 2015. The children found the loaded gun lying on the floor of their mother’s room in their apartment, according to the arrest report. The mother originally told officers a false story about her daughter being shot at a playground, and the mother shared the gun with her friend, police said.
In both cases, the adults were arrested on second-degree cruelty to juveniles, the same count as Kinchen. In the Baton Rouge case, the woman and her friend also were booked on counts of obstruction of justice after police said they lied about the circumstances of the shooting.
But in many other cases, adults were not arrested or charged, even when they were the ones responsible for the child who was harmed or for the firearm that inflicted the injury.
In February 2015, a 3-year-old girl fatally shot herself with a gun her father had left sitting out at their home when he suddenly was called in for work. The girl, Alexis Mercer, found the gun when she came home with her mother. The Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office determined the circumstances did not dictate a crime but also sent the investigation's findings to the District Attorney’s Office for further review, said Sheriff Tony Mancuso. The District Attorney’s Office did not pursue charges.
“I believe that was the right call,” Mancuso said. “There are circumstances where it would be applicable to charge the person with negligent homicide, but in this case, the evidence shows this was just an accident.”
Eight-year-old Nathan Majors died after he was accidentally shot by his 11-year-old brother while they were home alone in Benton in October 2014. The Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office decided no one should be arrested, calling it an accidental shooting, according to spokesman Lt. Bill Davis. The gun belonged to the children's parents, Davis said.
“It was already tough enough as it was,” Davis said.
The Baton Rouge Police Department has declined to comment on its decisions in Kinchen’s case, citing the fact that it is pending.
Moore said he plans to bring Kinchen's case to a grand jury, hopefully in early March, a move that he believes is most fair for controversial or sensitive cases.
“(Accidental shootings) are really difficult decisions to make, and they’re a hot button for the community,” Moore said.
Although some law enforcement agencies choose to send controversial cases to district attorneys for consultation before deciding to make an arrest, Moore said he understands Baton Rouge police moved forward in Kinchen's case because they believed they had probable cause.
“We don’t sit here and second-guess officers who are making quick decisions based on what they have,” Moore said. “We have the ability to have lawyers and research."
His office simply will present the facts of the case to a group of citizens serving on the grand jury who will decide whether or not to charge Kinchen. If she is charged with the felony, she could face more jail time, more time away from her children.
“I don’t need to be in jail,” Kinchen said. “I need to be with my children … and they need me.”
Even if Kinchen is not indicted, the whole incident — her arrest, the horrific gunshot, her daughter's recovery — has flipped her family upside down. Kinchen still will have to request to get the felony arrest expunged from her record, which she needs to get back her job, a job that she was proud to hold.
“It’s kind of hard for me to find a job right now because of that charge,” Kinchen said.
She was told not to come back to her position cleaning schools after her employer heard about the incident on the news, she said. It’s a job that requires a background check, Kinchen said, something that had never been an issue before.
Her daughter is now prone to seizures and lost some hearing in her right ear, issues they will deal with for the rest of their lives. Kinchen will still be juggling her daughter's frequent doctors appointments and physical and speech therapy as she tries to understand the girl's new medical needs.
Kinchen also was charged with domestic abuse with child endangerment in November after an incident in her daughter's hospital room following her surgery. Kinchen got into an argument with her boyfriend, also her daughter's father. A deputy was called to the scene and found the man had bleeding scratches on his neck, arm and chest, that arrest report says. Kinchen said they were fighting about what had happened the day the gun went off.
So while she worries about getting more time and what a grand jury means, Kinchen said she hopes people can see what this incident was: an accident — the worst type of accident — but just a big, terrible accident.
"We didn't know there was a gun, and I was just trying to get to my cousins," Kinchen said, shaking her head. "I'd be going crazy if she didn't make it. She's my baby … it was an accident."