A judge dismissed a 30-year-old's charge that he negligently handled a firearm, which led to his partner's death, after a preliminary hearing Tuesday in Hamilton County General Sessions Court.
Judge Clarence Shattuck dismissed Cody Gilliland's criminally negligent homicide charge after hearing an emotional police interview and 911 call in connection with the July 2 death of 25-year-old Lauren Bonnema. The charge is a Class E felony that carries one to six years in prison upon conviction.
The defense and prosecution seemed to agree Gilliland never intended to harm Bonnema and that he told the truth during two police interviews. But at issue was whether Gilliland ought to have been aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that Bonnema would be killed because of the way he handled a firearm inside the couple's apartment at 7710 E. Brainerd Road.
Under the law as charged, Shattuck said, he believed there wasn't probable cause. He said his heart went out to both of the families. Gilliland, who was ordered to live with his mother while the charge was pending, has no other violent criminal charges in Hamilton County's court system.
According to court testimony, Gilliland said he came home for lunch that day with Bonnema and her young child, then returned after getting off work. Gilliland told investigators he played with the baby and their dog, then went into a bedroom to look at a gun around 8 p.m. while Bonnema cooked dinner.
Gilliland said he was examining a chewed-up plastic scope on his AR15 rifle when their dog jumped on him. Though Gilliland said he pushed the dog off, the dog continued lunging at him. As he yelled at the dog and tried to kick it away, Gilliland said, he bumped into the wall and the gun went off.
Gilliland told investigators he was surprised. As investigating Chattanooga violent crimes officer Zachary Crawford testified, "He said he was aware the gun had a magazine, but he wasn't aware that there was one [round] chambered at the time."
After checking on Bonnema in the kitchen, he noticed a pool of blood near her mouth; she'd been shot in the face and later died from the injuries. He checked on the baby and called 911.
Crawford said Gilliland told a consistent story that matched up with crime scene evidence. In the minutes before the police interview, Gilliland could be heard crying and repeating to himself, "Please don't die on me."
Crawford said he charged Gilliland with criminally negligent homicide because the 30-year-old should have known and followed basic gun safety rules. Crawford said gun users should always treat a weapon as loaded and never have their finger in the trigger guard until they're ready to shoot. Crawford, who noted that Gilliland and Bonnema both had a background in the military, chalked the death up to "gross negligence."
Gilliland's defense attorney, Lloyd Levitt, said the death was "100 percent pure accident." He said Gilliland has been distraught and constantly asking about the victim's family. He noted that officers believed Gilliland had no intent to kill and said "gross negligence" could be better argued as a civil claim, where the standards of proof are different from a criminal charge.
"I don't know any other way to check if it's loaded than to pick it up," Levitt said. "And that's what he does — he picks it up and the dog starts jumping."
The prosecution seemed torn, too.
"I will be frank with the court," said Assistant District Attorney Andrew Coyle. "I believe it is close. It's a horribly sad situation. And from my standpoint I believe this is very close. And I leave it to the court."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.