Father on suicide watch

Young probationer whose son accidentally killed himself is despondent and needs counseling, his family says

Staff WriterDecember 27, 2008 

— The man whose 3-year-old son was killed late Christmas Eve after finding a gun is on suicide watch at the Wake County jail, family members said.

Eric Eugene Hinton, 26, of 1123 Ujamaa Drive in Raleigh made his first court appearance Friday morning on charges of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and involuntary manslaughter in the death of his son, Pharell. He faces more than eight years in prison if convicted.

Hinton spoke only once during his appearance, murmuring almost inaudibly that yes, he needed a court-appointed lawyer.

Told that Hinton was still on probation for a felony marijuana conviction, District Judge Shelley Desvousges decided to keep his bond at $100,000.

After the hearing, Hinton's uncle, Brian Hinton, rose and asked Desvousges if it was possible to get his nephew grief counseling to help him deal with what had happened. The judge replied that Hinton's lawyer could help with that.

According to state records, Hinton was given an 18-month suspended sentence for the marijuana charge in December 2007. His record also includes a felony drug conviction in January 2004 and misdemeanor trespass, larceny and possession of stolen property convictions in 1998 and 1999.

Brian Hinton said that his nephew had begun to reform his life about a year ago.

In recent months, though, Eric Hinton had been receiving threats, Brian Hinton said, and someone had fired several shots into his home Halloween night. That may have been why his nephew had the gun, Brian Hinton said.

Eric Hinton was taking the death of his son hard and clearly needed help coping, said his uncle. The uncle added that after what Eric has been through -- seeing what the bullet did to his son -- that punishing him any further didn't make sense.

"I don't know that it will fly in there," he said, pointing to the courtroom door. "I guarantee you, though, it's enough."

Hinton had five children, but only the three boys were with him Christmas Eve night, said Brian Hinton. The two girls were with their mother, with whom Hinton had broken up two years earlier.

Pharell Hinton had been all boy, Brian Hinton said, hyper and bossy. The only real problem with him was one that several of Hinton's children shared: not being able to go to bed at a reasonable hour. "They pretty much had to go until they fell out," Brian Hinton said.

That is what they were doing when Pharell was killed.

After the shooting, one of Pharell's two older brothers called 911 to plead for help, according to a tape of the 10-minute call. He told an emergency dispatcher that the toddler had pulled the trigger himself.

"My brother, he was playing, like, with this gun and he was playing with it, he was pointing at himself and he shot himself and he's dead," the boy said. "I'm so scared. I'm so scared. He's dead."

The boy then put Hinton on the line. The dispatcher calmly tried to coach Hinton through CPR, but Hinton kept breaking down.

Pharell, he said at one point, appeared to have been shot in the face. He may be breathing a little, Hinton said, and has one eye open.

The dispatcher finally got Hinton's attention long enough to talk him through breathing twice into the boy's mouth.

Then, though, police officers arrived and Hinton lost focus again. For the last few minutes of the tape he kept leaving the phone to answer the officers' questions even as the dispatcher tried to tell him to ignore the police and focus on the boy.

Hinton, who can't legally have a gun because of his criminal record, was arrested and charged early Christmas morning. Police said Pharell got hold of the gun because of the father's negligence.

It's rare for children in North Carolina to die from accidental gunshot wounds. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 10 such deaths took place in the state each year from 1999 to 2005, the most recent years for which it has statistics.

Brian Hinton said that he knew people would be skeptical that his nephew had started to put together a legal lifestyle. But he said that for the past year he had been consistently able to reach Eric Hinton on the phone at times of the night when, in years past, he would have been out on the street, up to no good. Eric Hinton had begun taking vocational classes, and the family had started taking him boxes of food because he no longer had an illegal cash flow.

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

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