Trial to begin in boy's death at Mass. gun expo

By Denise Lavoie
AP Legal Affairs Writer / December 5, 2010

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BOSTON—Eight-year-old Christopher Bizilj -- 4-foot-3 and 66 pounds -- stepped up to the firing range to shoot an Uzi as his father and 11-year-old brother watched from a few feet away.

As Christopher fired the 9mm micro submachine gun at a pumpkin, the weapon flipped backward and shot him in the head. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Prosecutors brought manslaughter charges against the gun club where the machine gun shoot took place, two men who supplied the weapons and a small-town police chief who owns a company that sponsored the gun fair.

On Monday, the first trial begins in what is expected to be a heart-wrenching recounting of Christopher's death on Oct. 26, 2008.

Edward Fleury, the former police chief in the tiny western Massachusetts town of Pelham, has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter as well as four counts of furnishing a machine gun to a minor.

Fleury was charged because he owned COPS Firearms & Training, which co-sponsored the gun fair at the Westfield Sportsman's Club. He also hired the two men who supplied the guns and ran the shooting range portion of the event.

Fleury's lawyer, Rosemary Curran Scapicchio, says there is no way Fleury could have anticipated that a child would die when he co-sponsored the event. The two men who supplied the guns -- Carl Giuffre and Domenico Spano -- had conducted the same gun shoot at the Westfield club for seven years without incident.

Fleury's lawyer also argues that prosecutors should have called Christopher's father, Dr. Charles Bizilj, to testify before the grand jury that indicted Fleury. Charles Bizilj brought his two sons to the machine gun shoot and gave them permission to fire the Uzi.

"The prosecutor urged the grand jury to find that Chief Fleury disregarded a probable risk of death of a child. However, the child's father did not believe that allowing his son to fire the machine gun would create a probable risk of death," Scapicchio wrote. "The truth is that death was not a probable consequence. Instead, it was a tragic pure accident."

Hampden District Attorney William Bennett did not return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.

Bennett has said Charles Bizilj chose the compact Uzi for his son after he was assured it was safer than a larger weapon. He said the small size of the gun, along with its rapid rate of fire, actually made it more likely that the third-grader from Ashford, Conn., would lose control of the weapon and the muzzle would come close to his face.

Bennett said Charles Bizilj was not charged because he was a layman and based his decision to allow his sons to fire the gun on information from others who should have known it was too dangerous.

Massachusetts law says it is legal for children to fire a rifle or shotgun if they have parental consent and are supervised by a certified instructor. But it is illegal in Massachusetts to furnish a child with a machine gun under any circumstances.

Spano's 15-year-old son, who was acting as a safety instructor that day, was not certified, Bennett said.

Charles Bizilj said Christopher had fired handguns and rifles previously but had never shot an automatic weapon such as an Uzi.

"I watched several other children and adults use it. It's a small weapon, and Christopher was comfortable with guns. There were larger machine guns with much more recoil, and we avoided those," he told The Boston Globe the day after his son's death.

Bennett said Christopher was one of at least four children who fired automatic weapons at the fair. He said Fleury had wrongly assured Giuffre and Spano that it was legal for children to use the Uzi.

Charles Bizilj was filming his son and captured the shooting on video. Fleury's lawyer has asked the judge to exclude the graphic video from the trial.

The Bizilj family has been devastated by Christopher's death, said Bruce Melikian, an attorney who represents the family in a wrongful death lawsuit against Fleury, Spano and Giuffre.

"I'm not sure what this trial will accomplish," Melikian said. "I think their main concern is that no one else ever has to go through this again."

Fleury faces a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted on the manslaughter charge. He faces a maximum of 10 years if convicted of furnishing the weapon to a minor.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday in Hampden Superior Court in Springfield.

Giuffre and Spano have pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter. No trial dates have been set for them yet.