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Decision on charges in shooting death of Charlotte teen could come this week

By Fred Clasen-Kelly
frkelly@charlotteobserver.com

More than a year after a gunshot killed a Charlotte teen in eastern North Carolina, authorities still haven’t answered whether she was murdered or a rifle fired without anyone pulling the trigger.

Columbus County District Attorney Jon David told the Observer the FBI has completed lab tests that are supposed to help determine what happened to Jasmine Thar, a 16-year-old Ardrey Kell High School sophomore who was shot Dec. 23, 2011.

But David would not divulge test results on the Remington Model 700 rifle or say whether he plans to file criminal charges in the case.

He said he would soon meet with Jasmine’s family to tell them his decision. An attorney for the family said the meeting could take place as soon as this week.

Jasmine was shot as she stood with family and friends outside a house where they were visiting in Chadbourn, a small town about 140 miles east of Charlotte.

A single bullet from a house across the street killed Jasmine and wounded two others who were loading into a vehicle for a Christmas shopping trip.

Police questioned James Anthony Blackwell, 25, but he told them he took his rifle from a case and it fired without him pulling the trigger.

Jasmine’s family has said the shooting may have been racially motivated. The victims are African-American. Blackwell is white.

A spokeswoman for the FBI said the agency’s civil rights unit is still investigating. Local authorities asked for FBI assistance because they were concerned about evidence found in Blackwell’s room, the family said.

But more than 70 lawsuits have been filed against the Madison, N.C.-based Remington Arms Co. claiming its 700-series rifles have fired without a trigger pull. The company has disputed accusations against the model, which is one of the most popular on the market.

Jasmine’s family is represented by famed Florida attorney Willie Gary, who is nicknamed “The Giant Killer” for winning multimillion-dollar suits against some of the nation’s largest corporations, including the Walt Disney Co.

Gary told the Observer he plans to file a lawsuit against the gun manufacturer. He said Remington has long been aware of problems with the Model 700 rifle.

The company did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The case has received nationwide attention and prompted an Internet petition drive urging authorities to pursue criminal charges.

An outgoing personality

A basketball player, track and field sprinter and cheerleader, Jasmine was known for an outgoing personality. Family members said she wanted to attend East Carolina University and go to law school.

It was two days before Christmas when she and her family were in Chadbourn visiting with her godmother, Treka McMillian, who is an assistant basketball coach at Western Carolina University, and Jah-mesha McMillian.

Jasmine’s mother had arrived from Charlotte to go on a shopping trip to Myrtle Beach.

Six people walked out of a small ranch house where they were visiting Treka McMillian’s family.

Jasmine’s mother and younger brother Jay, along with a 7-year-old girl, were already in the vehicle waiting for the others.

As Jasmine, Jah-mesha McMillian and Treka McMillian were walking in a line to the SUV, according to witnesses, there was a loud bang. One bullet struck all three of them.

A neighbor who heard the shot and ran outside said she saw Blackwell crying in front of his house.

“I’ve never seen anyone’s face so twisted with anguish,” Billie Bright told the Observer.

A Chadbourn police officer went to Blackwell’s house, where he saw the rifle on the floor 4 feet from a window with a broken pane, according to a police report.

The officer spoke with Blackwell’s father, who was at the house. The father, the report says, told the officer that he ran into Blackwell’s room when heard the gunshot. He said he found Blackwell standing in the room and the rifle was on the floor in front of his son.

The officer asked Blackwell what happened. Blackwell said “that he had went to his closet to take his rifle out, and when he pulled it out of the case, the rifle went off. Anthony said that he did not know that the gun was loaded.”

Family critical of authorities

Jasmine’s relatives have said they do not believe Chadbourn police and the SBI thoroughly investigated the case.

They question why Chadbourn police did not arrest Blackwell the day of the shooting.

According to the police report, Chadbourn police handcuffed Blackwell and took him to the police station, but the officer was simply “letting him calm down away from the scene.”

Jasmine’s family has also criticized David’s handling of the case. Her mother, Carletta McNeil, asked why it has taken so long for him to decide whether to authorize charges.

McNeil said she is “frustrated” because the uncertainty makes it difficult to find closure. David broke a promise to keep the family updated monthly on the progress of the investigation, she said.

“It makes me feel like he doesn’t care about the case,” McNeil said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see he doesn’t care about the case.”

David said he wanted to wait until he received “scientific” test results from an FBI lab in Virginia to make a decision. He would not say what evidence the FBI tested, but an attorney for Jasmine’s family said it was the gun from the shooting.

“We wanted to be extremely thorough,” David said.

He said that soon after he received the lab results he contacted Gary, the family’s lawyer, to notify him and that a decision would be coming soon.

Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027
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