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To What Degree Should Parents Be Held Responsible for Their Children's Crimes?

Aired March 6, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight: Are others responsible in the deadly California school shooting? Should the suspect's parents be held accountable? And what about those who heard about the shooting before it happened and did nothing?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the crossfire, in San Diego, California, Paul Pfingst, San Diego district attorney, and later in Detroit, attorney Geoffrey Fieger, and in Washington, James Rogan, former Republican congressman from California.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Students return to Santana High School near San Diego tomorrow. Today was a day of mourning for two fallen schoolmates and prayers for their families.

The suspected shooter, 15-year-old Charles Andrew Williams, will be arraigned tomorrow morning and charged with murder. He says he acted alone, but there are questions today about the role that others may have played.

He apparently got his gun and ammunition from home. Should his father be held responsible? Fellow students and an adult acquaintance heard him talk this weekend about taking a gun to school but did nothing. If they had talked to authorities, could the tragedy have been prevented?

And Williams walked on campus with a gun in his backpack. Would metal detectors have stopped him first?

Just like after Columbine, tonight we look for answers. And we start in San Diego with Paul Pfingst, district attorney for San Diego County.

Mr. Pfingst, let me ask you first about a gentleman by the name of Chris Reynolds. He's a boyfriend of the mother of one of Andy Williams' classmates. And he said -- he admits that over the weekend he heard the kids talking, that Andy Williams had bragged about possibly taking a gun to school. He talked to him about it. He decided on his own that the kid was probably joking. He did nothing, alerted -- did not alert authorities.

Could he be held responsible in this shooting for knowing and doing nothing?

PAUL PFINGST, SAN DIEGO DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Under California law the answer to that is no. There are very limited circumstances where the failure to act becomes criminal. And generally, they involve special relationships: for example, a teacher who is made aware or has reason to believe a child is being physically abused; a physician who may be aware that a patient is being the victim of domestic violence. They have affirmative duties of reporting.

Short of those circumstances, under California law there's no criminal liability for this. There can be civil liability, but not criminal liability.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Now, Mr. Pfingst, apparently because of this proposition, prop 21, that passed in California last year, you're charging Andy Williams as an adult, but (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in some ways pretending that he's not an adult. He's 15 and he can't think through his actions in the way an adult can. Do you agree with this proposition or are you just acting the way you feel you have to act?

PFINGST: Well, the voters passed the proposition in March of last year. I did not endorse the proposition, but they made it clear that for certain of the most serious crimes they will. And I repeat and underline "will be tried in adult court."

It is mandatory. DAs, judges, nobody else can interfere.

So this case is going to be tried and sent to adult court because that's the law of the state.

Certain other lesser crimes, there's discretion, but not for this type of a murder.

PRESS: How about, Mr. Pfingst -- a final question -- the role of this boy's father? He got the gun from home, he got the ammunition from home. We've heard in news reports today that the gun was kept in a safe. Nonetheless, the kid obviously knew where the key was, was able to get the gun.

Are there laws in California that would hold the father responsible for this -- for the damage that was done with this gun by his son apparently?

PFINGST: This has -- this has been one of the most frequently asked questions today, not only about the gun but about the people who failed to report.

The circumstances under which under California law someone can be held responsible for a crime they themselves did not commit or participate in committing are very, very rare. And so absent something more than our investigation has disclosed to us thus far, there's no criminal liability.

But let me take that a step farther, because it's important that we focus on this for just a second if you guys have the time. There's been an enormous amount of time spent by investigators from my office and the sheriff's department trying to pursue who knew what when and what they did with the information or did not do with the information, to find out whether this killing could have been avoided.

And for the next couple of weeks, we intend to continue that level of investigation about that fact in the hopes that it can shed some light on future possibilities to intervene before there's death.

So this is not an idle question even though it may not result in a criminal prosecution.

CARLSON: Well, Mr. Pfingst, we'll be watching your efforts carefully on CNN. Thank you for joining us.

PRESS: You're welcome.

CARLSON: Geoffrey Fieger, now, isn't it true that the parents of this boy, Andy Williams, are in some sense as much victims of this as anyone? I mean, they've lost a son, just like other parents. They're going to have to spend the rest of their lives dealing with the shame and stigma attached to this act. And yet you and other lawyers have advocated suing the parents of school shooters like this simply because it's an easy way to make a buck. I mean, is there any other justification for suing the parents other than it's a quick way for you to make money?

GEOFFREY FIEGER, ATTORNEY: Of course there is. And don't be so condescending, notwithstanding your bow tie. There is a reason for civil justice, and that is when the criminal courts don't or can't step in. There is a modicum of justice provided by the civil courts, albeit the only thing that we can do is enforce a money judgment.

We brought suit against the parents of Klebold and Harris. It's clear that they have some culpability. They allowed their sons to continue to work together after the juvenile authorities had banned them from being together. They allowed their sons to amass armaments in their own bedrooms. They allowed their sons to construct bombs in their garage.

And in this case, the Williams allowed their son to obtain a gun sufficient to kill two children...

CARLSON: Wait. Hold -- wait. Hold on a second here, Mr. Fieger. First of all, there's no evidence that they allowed anything. The boy...

FIEGER: How did he get it?

CARLSON: I mean -- hold on.

FIEGER: How did he get it?

CARLSON: He hasn't seen his mother in 10 years. Apparently he took it from a locked safe. But the bottom line...

FIEGER: What do you mean? Wait, wait. If he took it from a locked safe, than it wasn't locked. CARLSON: That's -- please answer my question, which is the parents didn't commit any crime. There's no evidence in this case that they had any idea of what their son planned or intended to do. How in the world are they responsible? They're just the ones with the money.

FIEGER: Well, I can tell you...

CARLSON: The kid doesn't have the money. You go after the one who does have the money.

FIEGER: I -- I also represent the family of Kayla Rolland, who was a first-grader who was killed in Flint, Michigan. And the prosecutor, Art Busch in Flint, Michigan, has charged the uncle of the shooter for leaving a gun available to a small child. That's a question that the prosecutor is going to have to look into.

But certainly, this 15-year-old didn't buy the gun. This 15- year-old obtained the gun at home. And perhaps we at least need the laws which require the adults to lock them down. And the NRA has opposed every effort across this country to impose those types of laws, even though they give lip service to the contrary.

PRESS: Jim Rogan, let me ask you. There's an analogy here up in Baltimore. The uncle of an 8-year-old kid is in jail tonight, been held in jail -- I'm sorry, he's in Philadelphia -- because his niece got hold of his gun, took it to school, and threatened a classmate with it. And the uncle is in jail.

Let me jump now to San Diego. I mean, no matter where this gun was in the house, wouldn't you have to agree that this father clearly did not do enough to keep this gun out of the hands of his kid and must be held responsible?

JAMES ROGAN, FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: Bill, I think it all depends. I'll say something that might surprise you. I may actually agree with part of what Geoffrey Fieger says.


In California, in fact, we have statute that says if a parent leaves a loaded gun or leaves a gun in a position where it's easily obtainable by a child in a condition that's so dangerous that in fact that gun is discharged and somebody is injured, they can be held criminally liable. I think that's common sense. I think that if a parent is going to be so irresponsible in the possession and storage of a gun as to leave it in a condition that would let a small child have access to it, they shouldn't be able to walk into criminal court and say that, gee, I had no idea this was going to happen.

On the other hand, what I'm concerned about is that we take these extreme situations, like this one we're looking at now, and say we're going to hold parents criminally liable, we're going to put them in prison for merely owning a gun irrespective of the condition in which that gun was held or the care they took in keeping the gun. PRESS: Well, I don't think -- I haven't heard anybody going that far yet. But getting back -- and Geoffrey mentioned the Columbine situation and the responsibility of the parents there. I think you also have to look at the parents of the kids who are the victims in those situations who did their jobs with their kids.

And I would like to play a little bite here from -- it's a graphic, I'm sorry. This is the father of one of the Columbine victims, Michael Shoels, who was quoted in "The New York Times" last October.

Quote: "They ask us if we blame the parents. Who else do we blame? I taught my son right from wrong. My son wasn't shooting people up. My son was in the library doing what he was supposed to do."

So clearly, the shooter's No. 1 in terms of blame, but the parents are in-line.

ROGAN: If the facts at Columbine are as Mr. Fieger says, that in fact these parents knew the children were making bombs, storing guns, keeping them out of the garage, if all of these extreme facts are true, I think that there's a very strong argument to be made that these parents aided and abetted a tragedy that was bound to happen. They at least had a bare minimal responsibility.

But I don't know of any evidence in this particular case that the Columbine analogy applies.

CARLSON: Geoff Fieger, you seem to be defining responsibility in a pretty broad way, and it seems to me, if we're going to define it that broadly, what about the other children with whom this kid went to school? They knew presumably that he was an angry may, maybe that he harbored violent thoughts. I mean, are you and other ambulance chasers going to show up and start suing them because they could have done something else to prevent this tragedy.

FIEGER: Well, again, thank you for the pejorative self description, but no, of course not, and what's frightening about this entire situation, and I've been involved in several of these discussions now in the past few days is that we're looking to blame and there's basically a society now that is looking to blame instead of looking at the root cause, and clearly the root cause is guns.

If was a toy that had been used umpteen times like has been used in the last 10 years to take out classmates, that toy would be banned. Look what we've done with just exploding tires on the SUV's, and shouldn't the gun manufacturers at a minimum have to subsidize what we're talking about, which is increased security, metal detectors in schools.

By God, where are educators supposed to come up with the money when they're scrambling for the money for enough books, food and teachers salaries. Now, they've got to worry about police and metal detectors?


CARLSON: Wait a second.

FIEGER: It seems to me that without the guns, we're not going to have these type of problems.

CARLSON: Well, I mean, first of all, if it had been a baseball bat, you wouldn't be blaming Louisville Slugger...

FIEGER: But if a baseball bat was...

CARLSON: You're saying the problem is the guns then why in the world are you suing the parents of the shooters at Columbine?

FIEGER: Because it doesn't make sense that only one person or entity is responsible. Certainly, in any situation, there may be one or more people at fault and under similar situations in the Kayla Rolland case, the prosecutor charged the uncle who the gun -- or the child to have access to the gun.

Certainly, they haven't charged the Klebolds, although civilly they've been charged and frankly, I think the Jefferson County authorities in Colorado would be well-advised to further investigate the culpability of the Klebolds and in the particular case in Santana High School, I'm not sure what should be done because I'm not privy to that information.

PRESS: Jim Rogan, let me ask you about another adult who was involved in this case, and one of strange things about these school shootings is that kids, unlike adults who seem, when they've done these things, they seem just to be loners who walk in without any warning and start firing.

Kids talk to other kids about it. Three out of four cases we reported today in school shootings, the kids have talk to their fellow classmates about it before they did it. And in San Diego, there was a gentlemen by the name of Chris Harris -- Reynolds, I'm sorry.

ROGAN: Was that the adult?

PRESS: The adult. He was the boyfriend of the mother of one Andy Williams' classmates, who heard some of this talk and actually talked to the kid about it and had a conversation. Here is how he described it to the media.


CHRIS REYNOLDS, FRIEND OF SUSPECT: He was telling me, no, I wouldn't be stupid and do something like that. He goes -- you know, he said that the guns were locked up and everything and he doesn't know where the key is and I guess that wasn't true because I kind of feel like I'm to blame for some of this because I could have done something.

(END VIDEO CLIP) PRESS: Now, I'm not suggesting he ought to be held criminally responsible, but what is the message to kids or to grown-ups who hear this kind of talk?

ROGAN: I think the message is you can't take this sort of talk lightly. I mean, if you think back to our teenage years and some of the guys we hung out with, everybody had -- there was always some guy that had a big mouth and was boastful and braggadocio and usually that wasn't taken very seriously.

But we live in a different time now where you just can't take a chance. If you go through an airport terminal and you go through the metal detectors, you know, there is sign there that's posted that says if you joke about having a bomb or a gun, we're going to take that very seriously.

PRESS: But isn't the difference, just a quick follow-up here, isn't the difference that in our days, kids didn't have, as Geoffrey Fieger just said, kids didn't have the guns? They couldn't get to the guns. There weren't so many guns out there.

ROGAN: Actually, I guess have to question that supposition because there were millions of guns in private hands throughout the centuries, at least this century, and so the guns were there. But it was a different era, and we just viewed it differently. I think this is a good message to adults out there that...


FIEGER: Maybe I was...

CARLSON: Geoffrey Fieger, we're going to talk guns, guns, and more guns when return in just a moment with Geoffrey Fieger and James Rogan. We'll be right back.


CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. It's been a day since the Santee California school shooting, and already, a familiar debate has erupted over what could have been done to prevent the tragedy: Stricter gun laws, tighter security in schools, better enforcement of statutes already on the books or is there anything the legal system can do to prevent random acts of violence?

Joining us tonight, attorney Geoffrey Fieger and former California Congressman James Rogan -- Bill.

PRESS: Congressman Rogan, I think, as Geoff Fieger suggested, we may be dancing around the real issue which is in every one of these school shootings, kids are killed with guns; 190 million firearms out in circulation today, including 65 million handguns. Isn't it time to recognize there are too many guns in circulation and we've got to make them tougher to get. For example, starting with licensing of hand guns. I mean, I have to license my dog. Why don't you have to license your handgun? ROGAN: I don't think that passing more gun laws would have prevented this. In fact, as I was looking through the newspaper today, I counted about 16 or 17 gun law violations that I could think of that this kid violated. If you had 30 violations, what good does it do if you're not enforcing the laws that are on the books.

Right now in the United States, we've got something like 20,000 gun control laws on the local, state and national level, Bill. We've got the most restrictive gun laws in America right here in Washington, D.C. It's the crime capital of the world. Maybe if we started enforcing the laws and making sure that criminals know that there is a penalty to pay, you'd have less acts of random violence.

PRESS: Well, that's the NRA mantra, of course, which I think is baloney but let me give you one specific example. After Columbine, President Clinton...

ROGAN: It's the constitutional mantra.

PRESS: ... proposed legislation that said that adults should be held criminally liable any time that juveniles obtain a weapon that they own and use that weapon in commission of a crime. That legislation died in the Congress. Don't you think that President Bush ought to reintroduce that legislation now?

ROGAN: Absolutely now, because if you're going to introduce a bill like that, let's just get to the bottom line. That's a type of bill that's introduced by people who just do not believe in the private possession of handguns, irrespectful of the need for self- protection.

PRESS: What about personal responsibility?

ROGAN: That bill that you've just described suggests that no matter what the condition was in which that gun was kept safe or not, it doesn't matter. If a kid comes in and dynamites the safe and gets the gun, then the parent can go to jail for that. Well, what is the chilling effect? The chilling effect is, of course, that there's no more private ownership of handguns, at least among law-abiding citizens, and I think that takes us much too far.

CARLSON: Now Geoffrey Fieger...

FIEGER: You know, they don't use the lawmakers -- let me just say, the lawmakers don't use same the analogy with drugs. For instance, they say we've got to ban drugs in order to stop their use. We don't just pass more laws against drugs and then allow the free flow of drugs into society. The reaction is ban them. But with guns, it's to increase the flow of guns and say, we'll put up laws. And, of course, they don't work.

ROGAN: Last time I checked, there's no constitutional right to be a drug addict, but there is a constitution right to defend oneself and one's family in their home and that is a significant difference.

FIEGER: That has nothing to do with the guns that are out there today and if that constitutional right exists, then everybody has a right to own a nuclear weapon, too, because there's no restriction on the arms in the Constitution. So where do you get the distinction between an AK-47 or a single shot musket like they had during the Revolutionary War?

The Constitutional fallacy here is that there's ever been a holding by any court that there's a right of private citizens to own any guns they want. There's never been...


ROGAN: Mr. Fieger, you know full well that the Supreme Court has never said that there is an unlimited right to the first amendment, that there are reasonable restrictions on the first amendment, and you can't go into a movie theater and scream "Fire."

And just as the second amendment gives law-abiding citizens the right to own guns to defend themselves and their families, there's no absolute right to own nuclear weapons or things like that...


FIEGER: Why are you more...

ROGAN: With all due respect, I think that's a foolish argument.

FIEGER: Why are you -- No, it's not foolish.

But why are you more willing to restrict the right to privacy under the fourth amendment than you are to restrict the right to bear guns -- where we all have to have 50 locks on our doors because we're fearful of being killed by somebody with a gun? Why is that occurring among conservatives?

ROGAN: I'm not sure I understand the analogy between the fourth amendment...

FIEGER: Because the fourth amendment is the right to have privacy and not to have government intrusion. And, yet, so-called conservatives are much more willing to whittle away the search and seizure laws than they are to whittle away people's right to guns.

CARLSON: OK, OK. Geoffrey Fieger, before we get into too many more amendments, I just want to show you a press conference that took place this morning. This is a spokesman for the San Diego County sheriff's department. This is the first thing he said at the press conference this morning. Watch this.


LT. JERRY LEWIS, SAN DIEGO CO. SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT: First, I will talk about the weapon. The weapon was recovered in the boys bathroom in building 200. The weapon is described as a .22 long rifle revolver. The name brand is Arminius.

CARLSON: Now, who cares what brand the gun was? The gun didn't do anything wrong.

FIEGER: Nonsense.

CARLSON: The gun is an inanimate object. It doesn't think, it doesn't make choices. Isn't the obsession with the object itself drawing attention away from the heinous acts of the criminals?

FIEGER: In Scotland, a man walked in with a long gun and killed something like 20 children. Right after that, England passed the most repressive laws against all guns, including long guns, that have ever existed. And guess what? They haven't had one school shooting since that time 20 years ago.

We now have had a massacre per year since Jonesboro. It's a -- it's a unique phenomenon, never occurred in this country, and it's directly attributable to the amount of guns out there.

Because I disagree with the Congressman. In my lifetime, in the '50s and '60s when I grew up -- and I grew up in a fairly affluent area, just like every one of these shootings that occurred have been -- I didn't know anybody who had a handgun. I didn't know anybody's parents who had a handgun. Nobody ever came to school with a handgun. Nobody showed me a handgun at their father's house.

ROGAN: I guess my time is up, here.

PRESS: OK, gentlemen, I'm sorry. It seems like we're just getting started but we are out of time. Geoffrey Fieger in Detroit, thank you so much for joining us.

FIEGER: Thank you, Bill.

PRESS: Congressman Jim Rogan.

ROGAN: Thank you.

PRESS: Good to have you here in the studio with us. And Tucker Carlson and I will have our solutions to the school safety problem when we come back. Closing comments coming up.


PRESS: You know, Tucker, there are a lot of factors here, but there's one that you just refuse to recognize. There have always been angry teenagers for centuries. Are they more angry today than they were 100 years ago? No. What's the difference? They have better access, more ready access to guns. There are just too many guns out there for these kids to get their hands on.

CARLSON: That's actually ridiculous. If you are dead set on murdering your classmates, for whatever reason -- and I think it's plausible that people are angrier now than they were 100 years ago -- but if you're dead set on that, violating gun laws is inconsequential to you. It doesn't make any difference. No gun law could have stopped this, short of grabbing all guns. PRESS: There's a huge difference between access to a baseball bat, access to a rake, access to anything else -- and access to a gun that this kid could load and reload...

CARLSON: Oh, please.

PRESS: Four times and give off 30 rounds and kill two kids!

CARLSON: On the frontier on the farm, people lived --

PRESS: You can't do it without a gun. CARLSON: People lived with guns hanging over their beds in every room. There weren't school shootings. The culture is different. Society is different.

PRESS: The culture is different and there are more guns out there. Add them up, you've got school shootings.

From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night from CROSSFIRE.

Hey, we'll be back in "THE SPIN ROOM" at 10:30.

CARLSON: See you then. From the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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