After deliberating for about seven hours, a jury found a Montana man not guilty of intentionally murdering his son. Instead, the jury found James Sindelar guilty of negligent homicide in his son’s shooting death. The jury may have based its verdict on the testimony of a defense expert who explained how Sindelar could have accidentally fired the fatal shot.
There is no dispute that Sindelar, a 74-year-old resident of Ballantine, Montana, shot his 35-year-old son. The issue before the jury was whether Sindelar did so intentionally or accidentally.
The prosecution based its case on the testimony of Victoria Sidelar, the wife of James Sindelar’s son. She testified that Sindelar, who was living in a tent on family land that his mother had given to his son, came to their house to hand-deliver two letters. While he was there, Sindelar and his son got into a heated argument. Victoria Sindelar told the jury that her husband told his father to leave at least three times, eventually sticking a finger in his father’s face.
According to Victoria, James pointed a pistol at his son’s face during the argument. Victoria testified that her husband grabbed the barrel of the gun. Moments later, the gun discharged.
Sindelar testified that he brought the gun with him for protection. He said that his son was aggressive and described him as having a drinking problem. When he got to the house, his son started arguing with him and he felt threatened. He said he brought out the gun because his son was advancing on him and he wanted his son to stop. When his son bent over him and gripped the gun in both hands, the gun went off accidentally. Sindelar then called 911.
The prosecution’s experts provided testimony that was consistent with what the eyewitnesses told the jury. A pathologist told the jury that Sindelar’s son died from a gunshot wound to the head. The shot was fired from a few inches away and traveled at an upward angle. Sindelar’s lawyer told the jury that the forensic evidence supported Sindelar’s testimony that his son was bending over him when the gun went off.
Another expert testified that Sindelar’s son had a high blood alcohol level. His 0.15% blood alcohol concentration was well above the legal limit for driving.
The prosecution argued that Sindelar made an intentional decision to pull the trigger. Sindelar relied on the testimony of Roger Enoka, a professor in the department of medicine at the University of Colorado. Testifying as an expert witness, Enoka explained to the jury how the central nervous system can cause a hand to squeeze a trigger even if the person holding the gun has not formed a specific intent to shoot. Enoka based his testimony on studies he has made of involuntary muscle contractions.
Experts in involuntary muscle contractions often testify on behalf of police officers in civil and criminal cases when the officers are sued or prosecuted for shooting an innocent victim. Dr. Enoka’s research is frequently the basis for that testimony. The research has also influenced police training procedures by emphasizing the need for an officer to keep his or her finger outside of the trigger guard prior to forming an intent to shoot.
In Sindelar’s case, the expert’s testimony may have made the difference between the intentional homicide verdict that the prosecution sought and the negligent homicide verdict that the jury returned. The maximum sentence that Sindelar faces is 20 years in prison. Given Sindelar’s age, even a mid-range sentence for negligent homicide would have the same practical effect as a life sentence. The judge will be challenged to fashion a sentence that takes Sindelar’s age and the unintentional nature of his conduct into account.