Teen pleads guilty to manslaughter

Published 3:35 pm Wednesday, October 6, 2021

A former Smithfield High School student charged with fatally shooting his classmate in March pleaded guilty in Isle of Wight County Circuit Court on Oct. 6 to involuntary manslaughter and reckless handling of a firearm.

Charles Wills, 18, had been “playing with” his father’s gun while riding in a car on John Rolfe Drive with the victim, 18-year-old Austin McMillian, the evening of March 30, according to the manslaughter complaint filed by Smithfield Police Lt. Patrick Araojo, when Wills “unintentionally discharged the firearm,” causing a single round to strike McMillian in the chest.

McMillian died of his injuries at Riverside Hospital in Newport News just after midnight March 31. Police arrested and charged Wills with a single count of involuntary manslaughter that same day, then added the reckless handling charge on April 2. According to the reckless handling complaint, Wills had been “pointing the firearm at the victim” when it was discharged, then “ran from the vehicle and disposed of the firearm by throwing it over a fence” after the shooting.

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Before accepting Wills’ plea, substitute Judge James Hawks asked him if he was pleading guilty voluntarily and whether he understood that by doing so, he was waiving his right to a jury trial and right to appeal. Wills answered in the affirmative to each question, at which point Hawks accepted Wills’ guilty plea.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Georgette Phillips then recounted additional details of the crime. The four occupants of the vehicle, one of whom police identified as a juvenile, had been planning to confront an individual in the city of Suffolk or Southampton County who had allegedly stolen from the teens, Phillips said, but never located this individual.

The teens had stopped at the Royal Farms gas station in Smithfield and had been “shooting at vehicles” in the parking lot, she said. Wills had been demanding McMillian give him a water bottle, “tapping the gun on Austin’s knee,” when it went off.

Wills had initially told police an unknown person had shot into the vehicle, but later admitted he’d been the one who had shot McMillian, Phillips said.

Wills’ attorney, Ashton Wray, did not contest Phillips’ account of the sequence of events, but added Wills had removed the gun’s ammunition clip but did not think to check whether there was a round already in the chamber.

The Smithfield Police Department’s search of the car revealed one spent round near the car’s windshield and an unspent round, separate from the gun’s clip, Phillips said. The gun itself was never found.

McMillian’s father, Christopher, blames Smithfield’s Police Department for what he considers to be an overly lenient result.

“I truly believe the Commonwealth is doing everything they can, but they can only do as much as they are provided with evidence supplied by the Smithfield Police Department,” he said, accusing the department of not putting forth the same effort “that they would have if it was one of their children that had been murdered.”

Smithfield Police Chief Alonzo Howell, speaking to The Smithfield Times on Oct. 7, however, said his department had conducted “a very thorough investigation of the incident” and that all findings had been presented to Phillips, who ultimately made the decision to charge manslaughter and not murder.

“We’ve met with the family on a couple of occasions and tried to address any concerns,” Howell said.

Wills has been out on an unsecured bond since his arrest, and will remain so until he is sentenced on Dec. 22.

Wray maintains his client “never intended to injure or hurt” McMillian and has “been torn up” about it.

“I’m pushing for ‘go home,’” Wray said, meaning no incarceration and/or a suspended sentence.

But McMillian’s father is hoping the sentencing judge will impose the maximum penalty, which, according to Phillips, is 15 years in prison.

“Not only did Charles Wills think that disposing of the weapon was more important than helping my son, he also lied to the police and said someone pulled up and shot my son,” Christopher McMillian said. “This is someone trying his hardest to get out of the crime he committed, this is not something a person would do if truly this was an ‘accident.’”

But there is no mandatory minimum sentence for non-vehicular involuntary manslaughter spelled out in Virginia law. For the involuntary manslaughter charge, Virginia’s 2021 sentencing guidelines recommend one to 10 years in prison, and another one to five years for the reckless handling charge. These guidelines are not mandatory and the court can deviate from their recommendation, Phillips explained.

“I do not presently have a recommendation for an appropriate sentence in this matter as I have not received the pre-sentence report that will be prepared prior to sentencing,” Phillips said.