Flint, MI—In a crowd of men and women wearing suits and dresses in Flint City Hall on the morning of July 6, three young boys wore matching “Baby Yoda” T-shirts. 

The brothers were honoring their youngest brother, Messiah Williams, who was supposed to be the Star Wars character for Halloween last year. Nine days before the holiday, the three-year-old boy was killed at home in a drive-by shooting.

Messiah’s grandfather, Dave Hurley, and three brothers, Eligh, Isaac, and Isaiah, look on as their father, Henry Williams, speaks about the three-year-old son he lost to gun violence on July 6, 2021 at the Flint Municipal Center. (Amy Diaz | Flint Beat)

Four suspects have been arrested for the shooting, but now state representatives are working to pass legislation that would increase the penalties for individuals who shoot into homes and vehicles occupied by minors.

State Representatives Cynthia Neeley, Graham Filler, Mike Mueller, and Stephanie Young have 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.

“I went to Lansing to talk to my colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, and they all were on board for helping me find a solution,” Rep. Neeley said. “We are just so happy to be able to drop this bill package. I am so proud that we came together today to drop this new law, which is the Messiah’s Law.”

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.”

Rep. 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.”

State Representative Cynthia Neeley said she met with Messiah’s family and worked with them to create legislation that would toughen penalties for drive-by shootings July 6, 2021 at the Flint Municipal Center. (Amy Diaz | Flint Beat)

Representative 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. 

Representative 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. Representative Mueller’s proposed bill amends the code of criminal procedure to reflect the proposed increase in penalties for shots fired at motor vehicles. 

“This is a good starting point, this law. It’s not going to stop all violence overnight, we’re not so idealistic to believe that,” Filler said at the press conference on July 6. “But it shows, maybe, that communities can be empowered, emboldened to say enough. Enough of this.”

Flint’s Police Chief Terence Green said drive-by shootings have been up “well over 100%” although he did not have exact numbers.

Green said these shootings tend to be retaliatory, whether it’s a shooting as a result of a previous shooting, or someone getting offended by a social media post. He said they can also be a result of gang affiliations. 

He said the police department’s biggest challenge is getting the community to cooperate and provide information because they fear retaliation. 

“We just have to keep doing our job, keep doing these community outreach projects that we have, bridge that gap between the police department and the community, and build that trust,” Green said. “We want to do our job, we want to take those individuals responsible for this type of behavior off the street, but we can’t do it without their help.”

Messiah’s grandfather, Dave Hurley, urged the community to come forward with anything they see or hear after a violent crime is committed July 6, 2021 at the Flint Municipal Center. (Amy Diaz | Flint Beat)

Messiah’s grandfather, Dave Hurley, also spoke at the press conference, pleading with the community to come forward for future violent crimes with any information they have, and to utilize anonymous tools, like Crime Stoppers, if they are afraid of retaliation.

“You wouldn’t want it to happen to your family. Why would you allow it to happen to your neighbor’s family? Come forward,” Hurley said. “We all want our kids to grow up in a safe environment, and safe neighborhood, and when you shut your door and ignore the violent crime that you see, you’re just contributing to the problem.”

Messiah’s father, Henry Williams, said his son gave him ambition he never thought was reachable. 

“I’ve never met someone who had so much courage, so much love, so strong. I think about it all the time,” he said. “And you see now we have a broken family. We have a picture to look at now. … I’m hoping that this law will pass, not for me, but for everybody.”

Amy Diaz is a journalist hailing from St. Petersburg, FL. She has written for multiple local newspapers in her hometown before becoming a full-time reporter for Flint Beat. When she’s not writing you...