CLINTON — The 8-year-old boy suspected of fatally shooting his caregiver Thursday afternoon is believed to have been playing a version of the video game “Grand Theft Auto” minutes before he got a gun and fired it into the back of her head.
Detective Don McKey of the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Office said investigators cannot say for certain that the video game triggered the boy’s violent action but they are pursuing that line of inquiry.
Experts who have studied violent video games, television shows and movies differ on whether there is a correlation between those media and aggressive behavior in adolescents.
McKey said Marie Smothers, 87, was killed by a single shot from a Colt .38-caliber Detective Special revolver detectives believe belonged to Smothers.
McKey said the Sheriff’s Office is classifying Smothers’ death as a homicide, but the final determination will be made by the parish coroner and district attorney.
He said the Sheriff’s Office is withholding information on where the gun was kept in the mobile home where Smothers lived in Country Breeze Mobile Home Park on La. 67 near Hockaday Road.
A man who answered the phone number listed for Smothers’ address and said he was a relative of Smothers insisted that the shooting was not intentional.
“It was an accident,” the man said.
Twentieth Judicial District Attorney Sam D’Aquilla said the boy cannot be prosecuted criminally because of his age.
He said Louisiana Revised Statute 14:13 says, “Those who have not reached the age of 10 years are exempt from criminal responsibility.”
Although the television set was turned off, the video game console was still on when sheriff’s deputies arrived and had a copy of “Grand Theft Auto IV” in it, McKey said.
Only Smothers and the boy were in the mobile home when the shooting occurred, McKey said.
Although the boy initially told investigators he accidentally shot the victim while playing with a gun, deputies believe the 8-year-old intentionally shot her in the back of the head as she sat in her living room watching television, Sgt. Kevin Garig said in a news release Friday afternoon.
“From accounts of relatives of the victim, as well as friends of the family, the victim and the juvenile had a normal, loving, relationship and even shared the same bedroom,” Garig said.
Garig described “Grand Theft Auto IV” as a realistic game that awards points to players for killing people.
Dr. Michael Welner, a New York forensic psychiatrist, said he has testified before Congress about how violent video games can influence behavior.
“When it comes to eliminating violence, culture matters,” said Welner, who has testified in many criminal trials, including several of the Angola 5 trials in West Feliciana Parish.
He said video game developers design games to be absorbing and life-like and that killing is portrayed in a banal manner.
“My professional opinion is that video game violence is enabling the expression of violent urges in ways that cocaine and the worst of drugs never did and never could,” Welner said
Welner said parents should stop paying for violent video games for kids and should “collect them and throw them out in the same way you would flush the drugs you find.”
He added, “Community investment needs to be directed toward getting children away from gaming platforms and back out on the ball fields, where they can be engaging recreation in ways that are more suitable for children.”
Christopher J. Ferguson, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and teaches at Stetson University and has studied the positive and negative effects of playing violent video games, says there is no evidence violent video games cause people to kill.
“He’s kind of young for ‘Grand Theft Auto IV,’ but generally speaking, if you go into any house where there’s a teenager or even a kid a little younger, the odds of not finding a video game like this are almost zero,” Ferguson said.
The game is meant for mature audiences, “but in terms of it making him kill his (relative), no, probably not,” Ferguson said.
He added, “From a moral perspective, we might not want our kids to play a game that’s that mature. That’s kind of a moral statement. There’s no evidence of violent video games causing people to kill.”
Generally, police investigators who do not play video games seize on evidence of them to come up with some narrative to explain what happened, Ferguson said, stressing he is not referring directly to the East Feliciana investigation.
“It’s just a convenient narrative, but in terms of actual evidence that these video games cause people to become aggressive in this type of way, no, there’s none whatsoever,” Ferguson said, noting that while video games are very popular, youth violence is at its lowest level in four years.
An autopsy on the victim was conducted Friday in Lafayette, and the investigation is continuing.
McKey said deputies were told Thursday night that Smothers was 90, but her true age was confirmed after further investigation.
Sheriff’s deputies said the shooter and victim are related, but withheld the exact relationship to shield the child’s identity.
The district attorney said the boy’s parents live in East Baton Rouge Parish and the boy lived with the relative in order to enroll in an East Feliciana Parish school.
The shooting was reported to the state Department of Children and Family Services, McKey said.
D’Aquilla said the parents have been ordered to appear in 20th Judicial District Court on Monday for a judge to determine if the boy and his parents should receive help through the Families in Need of Services assistance program.
The state Supreme Court’s website says FINS provides “a unique opportunity for early judicial intervention to prevent delinquency and child abuse.”