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Rock Hill teen sentenced for shooting cousin, 10, in face

On March 26, a Saturday, 18-year-old Reginald Hayes was home at his family's Spruce Street house in Rock Hill, hanging out with his two younger cousins.

The older cousin was age 13, the younger one 10.

Reginald, always called Reggie, who had never been in trouble with the law, decided that hanging out wasn't enough. The adults were downstairs visiting.

Except Reggie - 18 and in high school - was an adult. He went into his parents' bedroom and got his father's .32-caliber pistol.

He waved the gun around, pointed it at 10-year-old Divine White, his cousin.

"I thought it was a cap gun," Divine recalled.

Waving the unloaded gun was not enough that day, though. Reggie went back to his parents' room and grabbed bullets. He showed the gun with the bullets in it. But Reggie thought no bullet was in the chamber, police later determined, so he presumed the gun would not fire.

Reggie pulled the trigger. A misfire. That bullet was found later with an indentation on it but somehow did not explode as the gun was pointed at the head of that 10-year-old cousin.

The second pull had no miracle attached to it. Instead, it turned into what Divine called "a white light." The bullet came out with blinding speed, tearing through Divine's face. It went right through Divine's right eye and tore the tissue around it. Blood spattered all over the boys and the room.

Reggie screamed out to the older brother in anther room, "I shot your brother!"

Reggie then carried Divine downstairs to his mother, and she drove them frantically to the hospital. Reggie held his cousin in his arms the whole way, having Divine say his ABCs so he didn't go into shock, then carried the boy at a run into the emergency room.

Divine lost that right eye.

In a courtroom Friday, more than six months later, Reggie Hayes admitted that all of those facts of that terrible day, spoken aloud by a prosecutor, were true.

He looked at his cousin's mother, Wednesday White, who sat in the courtroom, and said he never meant to hurt her son, his little cousin. He said if he had known what recklessness with a gun would do, he would never have picked up that gun.

"I hope we can be a family again," Reggie said.

Wednesday White fixed eye contact with Reggie, the first time since the day Reggie was arrested a few days after the shooting, and smiled at her young cousin. She is a warm woman who does not have the capacity for hate.

Then Reggie Hayes was sent to prison for at least 10 months.

That is what happens when young people, kids and teens, are around guns and bullets left unsecured around a house.

A 10-year-old loses half his sight forever, undergoes a bunch of operations, and a now 19-year-old - who prosecutors and everybody else agreed in court Friday did not get up that March morning planning to hurt anybody, especially his cousin - walks out of a courtroom in chains.

Reggie was originally charged in April with inflicting serious bodily injury on a child, a felony that carries up to 20 years in prison. That came after his original statement to police where Hayes claimed he had been tossing the gun to his cousin when it went off.

But that was different from what Divine told police after his first surgeries. Divine told police Reggie had pointed the gun right at him, at least twice. Then after a misfire, a click, his cousin whom he so admired shot him in the face.

Because of the lack of malice and Reggie's lack of a criminal record, prosecutor Erin Joyner offered a plea deal of first-degree assault and battery, with Reggie's being sentenced as a youthful offender.

Youthful offenders between the ages of 17 and 24 do not mix in with older, hardened criminals in state prisons.

They are in prisons, though.

Circuit Court Judge Lee Alford accepted the plea Friday, after saying three times that the whole basis of the case was reckless handling of a gun.

The sentence Alford gave is for five years, but under youthful offender guidelines for good behavior, Reggie could be out in less than a year, Joyner said.

When Reggie was being advised of the plea agreement before court by his lawyer, assistant public defender Phil Smith, when he realized that he would be jailed for shooting his cousin, his question was, "Will I have access to books in prison?"

He will have access to books, Smith said.

Reggie wants his own actions to be a lesson about the dangers of playing around with guns. Smith did the only thing he knows how to do in a courtroom. He laid out the truth - that Reggie grabbed that gun on March 26 and he loaded the gun and he fired the gun, even after he was told by his parents not to ever touch it.

"He had been warned before not to touch the gun, and he did," Smith told the court. "He's accepting responsibility for what he did after that."

What happened after that was a 10-year-old's dreams of any lot in life requiring two eyes are gone forever, and a 19-year-old who played with his cousin up until that awful day, and loved books and went to Rock Hill High School, is now a convicted felon.

What happened is Reggie Hayes picked up a gun and tried to look cool with it, like he and his cousin had seen in the movies a few days before when they had watched "The Quick and the Dead" on DVD.

A battalion of people die in the movie. Movies are all fake. All bullets are blanks. The actors leave afterward and count their millions.

But in real life, the bullets are real. A loaded gun shoots part of the face off someone you love. The shooter goes to prison and the victim hopes to see a sunset again.

Without the gun in that house, all in court conceded Friday, there is no Divine White without a right eye.

Without that gun, Reggie Hayes - who on Friday was so respectful and gracious in court to the judge and everyone else, who had never been in trouble, who wore his church suit and shined shoes and introduced himself with a smile - somehow, does not leave through a detention pen on his way to a prison.

South Carolina has no criminal law pertaining to the storage of the gun, Joyner said. So no one was charged for leaving it unsecured.

But after the hearing, Annie White, Divine White's grandmother and a longtime detention center deputy at the Chester County jail, wondered why.

"This family would not have been torn apart without him picking up that gun," Annie White said. "This has been terrible. We were so close, all of us, before this."

Wednesday White, Divine's mother, grew up together with Hayes' mother in the same house. She was at Hayes' home that day visiting when her son was shot.

A couple of days after the shooting, Wednesday White and others found out that what Reggie had originally told police, about tossing the gun around. That angered them, when the truth was far different.

Wednesday White knows that Reggie went and got the gun in March. He loaded the gun. He pointed the gun at her son. And he fired the gun.

"This sentence, this court hearing, I am fine with this today," Wednesday White said. "Reggie took responsibility and he had to be accountable. And when he looked at me in court, I smiled at him. I do not hate him. He carried my baby into the hospital that day.

"But my son can't ever get his eye back. There is no justice for the eye. The eye is gone."

Divine White was not in court Friday. He was in school, in the fifth grade, where he tells his teacher he wants to be a marine biologist.

There are no guns in school.

Just books.

And dreams.

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