Teen gets three years for manslaughter, reckless handling

Published 5:03 pm Wednesday, December 22, 2021

A former Smithfield High School student will serve three years in prison for fatally shooting his classmate in March.

Charles Wills, 19, pleaded guilty in October to charges of involuntary manslaughter and reckless handling of a firearm. On Dec. 22, Circuit Judge L. Wayne Farmer sentenced Wills a total of 15 years — the maximum allowed under state law — but suspended nine years on the manslaughter charge and another three on the reckless handling charge.

Wills had been out on an unsecured bond since his March 31 arrest. Per Farmer’s sentence, Wills will serve three years of active prison time, then be on supervised probation for the next five years. He’s also required to be on good behavior for a total of 10 years.

Wills 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 Smithfield Police Department’s manslaughter complaint. Wills then “unintentionally discharged the firearm,” causing a single round to strike McMillian in the chest.

McMillian died of his injuries at Riverside Regional Medical Center 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, stating in the second complaint that Wills had been “pointing the firearm at the victim” when it was discharged and had run from the vehicle and disposed of the gun after the shooting.

During the sentencing hearing, Isle of Wight County Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Edwards called McMillian’s mother and grandmother to the witness stand to read from the victim impact statements they’d submitted for the court’s Dec. 9 pre-sentencing report.

Karla McMillian — Austin’s mother — called the shooting the result of a “conscious decision” by Wills to point a gun at her son, and said she would “never forgive” him. McMillian’s grandmother Kendall Gaddis described Wills as having “absolutely no regard for human life,” and asked that the maximum sentence be imposed.

Wills’ attorney, J. Ashton Wray, called only one witness when making his case for leniency — Wills himself. On the stand, Wills said he’d reconnected with Austin in a high school welding class after first meeting him when the two were students at Westside Elementary School — and that he hadn’t intended to shoot his friend.

“I’m really sorry; I never meant for it to happen,” Wills said, addressing McMillian’s family.

Wray urged Farmer to “resist the temptation to punish” Wills “for the purpose of consoling” the McMillian family, and asked that his client be given a suspended sentence.

Edwards agreed that some type of suspended sentence was warranted for the manslaughter charge — for which Wills had faced up to 10 years in prison — on account of Wills having taken responsibility by pleading guilty. But Edwards urged Farmer to impose the maximum sentence of five years for the reckless handling charge.

Under cross-examination by Edwards, Wills said he’d never handled or fired the gun prior to the night of the shooting, but knew where his father kept it. Edwards then argued that while Wills has since expressed remorse for his actions, he’d initially lied to police — blaming the shooting on an unidentified shooter before ultimately confessing to the crime — and had run off to dispose of the gun prior to attempting to get medical attention for Austin.

“I can’t imagine being more reckless with a gun than that,” Edwards said.

Farmer ultimately took a position he acknowledged would be displeasing to the prosecution and defense alike.

“What a family wants is vengeance … that is not the role that a judge plays,” Farmer said. “I cannot allow this to be vengeance for Austin.”

But he also rebuked Wray for trying to argue Wills’ motivations.

“This crime is not about intent,” Farmer said, but rather conduct that is so reckless that it makes intent a non-issue.