An Evergreen man was found guilty of negligent homicide in the shooting death of his girlfriend’s 19-month-old daughter after a jury decided Wednesday that he didn’t deliberately kill the toddler.
Following about three hours of deliberation, the Flathead County District Court jury found 24-year-old Dwayne Scott Smail not guilty of deliberate homicide. Instead, the nine male and three female jurors unanimously decided Smail was guilty of a lesser charge of negligent homicide, which carries a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
The jury also found Smail guilty of using a firearm when committing the crime, a charge that carries up to an additional 10 years in prison.
In his closing arguments Wednesday morning, defense attorney Steven Eschenbacher asked the jury to find Smail guilty of negligent homicide, saying the prosecution didn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the shooting wasn’t an accident.
“We’re not asking you to excuse him,” Eschenbacher said. “We’re not asking you to say go ahead and go on with your life. Dwayne’s asking you to find him guilty for what he actually did.”
A day prior, Smail took the stand in his own defense and admitted to shooting 19-month-old Korbyn Eva May Williams once in the head with a 9 mm Ruger pistol last year, but maintained that it was an accident.
Smail said he feel asleep while taking care of the toddler in the apartment he kept with her mother Aimee Marie Williams, who was at work at the time. He said he woke up to Korbyn tapping him and realized she had a gun, which the couple kept for protection, after she had crawled to a corner of the bed.
As Smail reached for the gun, he said a light shined into the apartment, momentarily distracting him. “I pulled back on it (the gun),” Smail said. “The gun fired and I looked back over and seen her.”
Smail also denied asking a friend to tell authorities he had witnessed the shooting and back his story that it was an accident, contrary to that person’s earlier testimony. Smaill added that he was surprised the gun was loaded.
Prosecutors questioned Smail’s testimony, pointing out several instances where the original version of events he told investigators was different, including his initial claims that Korbyn had shot herself.
“… This story didn’t change until that physical evidence at the crime lab proved him to be the liar that he was,” Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan said in his closing arguments.
Eschenbacher told the jury that his client’s early lies were wrong, but that Smail wasn’t thinking clearly and was in denial. “Who would be willing to say I accept full responsibility right then?” Eschenbacher said. “You don’t want to believe that you did it.”
The prosecution also argued that physical evidence at the scene failed to support Smail’s claims. Forensic specialists testified that the pistol was placed firmly against Korbyn’s head when the trigger was pulled and that Smail was leaning toward Korbyn when the shooting occurred.
Corrigan told the jury Wednesday that they were faced with two scenarios for the events the night Korbyn died. “At time of shooting he’s (Smail) sitting up and leaning forward to do one of two things: either to wrest the gun from that child’s hand or to put the gun against her head,” he said, suggesting that the defendant was guilty of the latter.
The prosecution, Corrigan said, couldn’t offer the jury a motive, saying only that “bad things happen and there aren’t always explanations of why.” Corrigan warned that accidents are often easier to accept when tragedies occur, but asked the jury to hold Smail responsible for the highest charge despite not understanding his reasoning.
The defense countered that there wasn’t a motive because there was no intent to kill.
“In order to believe that he deliberately killed that child you have to believe that this is some sort of monster, that Dwayne is so evil he would deliberately kill a child he loved,” Eschenbacher said.
Throughout the three-day trial, the courtroom was often emotional as the jury and members of the audience viewed several unsettling photos of the victim and heard accounts of how she died. Smail wept throughout much of his testimony, and intermittently during final arguments.
On the other side of the courtroom, the victim’s family supported one another in the audience, crying and joining hands and praying in the courtroom at the beginning of the trial’s final day.
Smail is scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday, May 28, by District Court Judge Stewart E. Stadler.
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