Sigrid Gombert Cultura/Newscom

Sigrid Gombert Cultura/Newscom

Sixteen-year-old Kiera Wilmot, described by her principal as “a good kid,” had good grades and had never been in trouble at school—let alone with the law. Now she is facing felony charges for a “science experiment gone wrong.”

Kiera mixed household chemicals in an eight-ounce water bottle at school. The “experiment” resulted in the cap being blown off the bottle and smoke coming out of the top in what was described as a “small explosion.” Nobody was injured, nothing was damaged, Kiera didn’t run from what had happened, and she immediately told school administrators what had happened, taking full responsibility. There are no allegations that she intended to hurt anyone or cause any damage, or that she even intended for the bottle to pop its top.

She has since been expelled from school and charged with possession and discharge of a weapon on school property (a felony punishable by up to five years in prison) and discharging a destructive device (also a felony punishable by up to five years in prison). Altogether Kiera is facing up to 10 years in prison and a felony criminal record.

As we have noted previously, a felony conviction can ruin Kiera’s entire life. It can affect where she can work, where and whether she is admitted to college, and where she can live—not to mention the stigma that comes with a felony conviction and the loss of constitutional rights such as the right to vote and to own a firearm.

Accidents, like the one that happened at Kiera’s school, were not treated as crimes at common law (law that developed over hundreds of years in England, and was brought to the American Colonies). The government was required to prove that not only did the person commit the act, but that he or she also intended the harm. This is known as a mens rea (guilty mind) requirement. For example, common law crime of battery was the intentional and unpermitted touching of another that is offensive or which results in injury. If a person accidentally touched another person in an offensive manner, it wasn’t a crime (although the victim may recover in a civil action).

The Florida statute reads, it is a felony to “willfully and knowingly possess[] any…destructive device.” In 2007, the Florida Supreme Court interpretedwillfully” to mean “[p]roceeding from a conscious motion of the will…designed; intentional; purposeful; not accidental or involuntary.”

It is difficult to say whether the Florida Supreme Court’s interpretation of “willfully” will protect Kiera. A court could determine that she intentionally mixed the chemicals and intended to see what the result would be and, in so doing, acted willfully. A better reading of the statute would require the state to prove that Kiera intended the bottle to become an explosive device.

When a statute is ambiguous, the rule of lenity requires all ambiguities to be resolved in favor the defendant. Here, this would mean the latter interpretation. A court would ultimately have to determine which interpretation governs.

We hope that for Kiera it won’t come to that, common sense will prevail, the prosecutor will drop the charges, and this incident won’t stick with her forever.