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Flint, MI– A Flint family testified before the Michigan House of Representatives on Tuesday, in support of proposed legislation that would create harsher penalties for people who commit drive-by shootings.
The father and grandparents who spoke lost their three-year-old, Messiah Williams, last year after multiple people fired into the home and shot the young boy while he was asleep. The proposed bills would each be known as “Messiah’s Law.”
State Representatives Cynthia Neeley, Graham Filler, Mike Mueller, and Stephanie Young each introduced bills related to drive-by shootings on June 16.
This is bipartisan legislation, as Neeley and Young are both Democrats, and Filler and Mueller are both Republicans.
According to the current Michigan penal code, a person who intentionally discharges a firearm at a facility that they believe to be a “dwelling,” or “potentially occupied structure,” can face up to 10 years, or be charged a fine of up to $10,000, or both.
If they injure somebody, they can face up to 15 years, or a $15,000 fine or both. If they cause “serious impairment of a body function to somebody,” they can face 20 years, or $25,000, or both. If they kill somebody, they face imprisonment “for life or any term of years.”
Neeley’s proposed bill would amend that law, to increase the penalties for each of those actions against a minor.
Under the proposed legislation, an individual that causes physical injury to a minor could face up to 30 years, or a $30,000 fine, or both. If the individual causes “serious impairment of a body function” to a minor, the bill would increase the penalty to 40 years, or a fine of $50,000, or both. For the death of a minor, the individual “shall be punished by imprisonment for life without eligibility for parole.”
Young’s proposed bill amends the Michigan penal code by adding a section that creates penalties for shots fired at a motor vehicle believed to be occupied, and a motor vehicle occupied by a minor. For shots fired at a motor vehicle not occupied by a minor, the penalty would be 10 years, or a $10,000 fine, or both. The penalty is doubled for a vehicle occupied by a minor.
Filler’s proposed bill would amend the code of criminal procedure to reflect the proposed increase in penalties for individuals who harm minors in dwellings in drive-by shootings. Mueller’s proposed bill amends the code of criminal procedure to reflect the proposed increase in penalties for shots fired at motor vehicles.
This legislation was up for discussion in the Judiciary Committee in Lansing on Oct. 5, although there was no vote.
During the discussion, Messiah’s grandparents gave tearful testimonies about their loss, and their support for these bills.
“He was a loving son, brother, cousin, and grandson. His smile would light up the room. He loved to play with his three brothers. He enjoyed riding the tractor when I was mowing the lawn,” said Dave Hurley Jr. “Every time he came to the house, when he walked in the door, he’d run to us and say, ‘I love you,’ and give us hugs and kisses. We miss them dearly.”
Hurley said he believed anyone who takes a child’s life should not be allowed to walk the streets again, and pleaded with representatives to pass the legislation that would increase penalties.
The representatives who spoke in discussion agreed that something needed to be done to deter gun violence, but some said they weren’t sure that making harsher penalties was the answer.
“I understand the issue of gun violence. What I am concerned about … is how do we effectively deter gun violence? And I think there are a number of answers there,” said Rep. David LaGrand. “And I think that, frankly, and with all due respect, enhanced penalties is probably the least effective tactic we have.”
He said he thought efforts would be better focused in trying to get more police patrols on the street to deter people from committing crime.
Young said it doesn’t have to be one or the other, and that they could be trying to implement multiple solutions. But she did say she thought increasing penalties might make people think twice about committing a drive-by shooting.
“Once you start getting caught, and now your boys … start to see you get additional time. Your boys start to see you get more penalties,” she said. “Then we might just be cracking the egg, and getting folks’ attention that it’s not easy to just do a few years and then you get out. You’re gonna do a lot more years, and you’re gonna have to pay more money.”
Rep. Tenisha Yancey said she thought they needed to think of alternative solutions, and Rep. Kelly Breen agreed, saying she thought they could come up with something better.
Neeley asked if it was really fair to not give the families of victims of gun violence “a little peace of mind,” knowing that the shooter would “stay behind bars just a little longer so this doesn’t affect another family.”
One representative, however, said he was shocked to learn the penalties weren’t harsher already.
“When people are talking about the adverse reaction in increased sentencing, I would argue that that’s not what this is about,” Rep. TC Clements said. “This is about protections for innocent people.”
Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson also spoke before the committee, and agreed that these bills were about protecting victims.
“I can tell you from the criminal side of it … the organized crime base that many times operates in the city environment, they’re very premeditated,” Swanson said. “This is very seldom an emotional response. A drive-by shooting is meant to send a message.”
He also said that among “thieves and villains,” there is a code that you “don’t mess with people’s families.”
“So if this was a panel of those that were on the other side of the law, I would tell you that the majority would agree,” he said. “You don’t mess with families. You don’t hurt kids.”
In Messiah’s case, three people have been charged, although it is still in the adjudication process, Swanson said. There were originally four people charged, although charges were dropped against one person who was determined not to be a shooter.
Henry Williams, Messiah’s father, said he thought this law would make people think twice.
“Even if it saves one child’s life, isn’t that enough to pass this? Our children are our future,” he said. “Are we going to just sit and let our future be stripped away and cut short?”
He disagreed with the representatives who spoke out against increasing time in prison for perpetrators of these shootings.
“The only argument I’ve heard against this is locking up young people,” Williams said. “To that I say, we are all responsible people who know right from wrong…we can’t stand to let dangerous or violent acts happen. Is this a society you want to live in? Not me.”
The bills now await a vote in the judiciary committee.