Man gets jail in friend’s accidental shooting death

  • Judge Karen Goodwin, right, listens as the mother of Joseph Pearson reads a statement during the sentencing of Zachary Bassett, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019 in Hampshire Superior Court. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Matthew Thomas holds a .22 rifle that was owned by Zachary Bassett that took the life of Joseph Pearson during the sentencing of Bassett, Wednesday, in Hampshire Superior Court. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Zachary Bassett, left, looks toward the spectators during his sentencing, Wednesday, in Hampshire Superior Court. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/17/2019 12:24:39 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Tears flowed on both sides of the standing-room-only courtroom at Wednesday’s change-of-plea hearing for Zachary Bassett.

Bassett, 24, of Belchertown, pleaded guilty in Hampshire Superior Court to the charge of improper storage of a firearm near a minor.

The firearm in question, a semiautomatic .22-caliber rifle, resulted in the death of Joseph Pearson, 19, of Amherst, who accidentally shot himself at a party at his home to which Bassett brought the firearm.

“He wanted to show it off for them,” said Assistant District Attorney Michael Thomas.

Judge Karen Goodwin presided over the hearing, and accepted the guilty plea. After hearing impassioned arguments from the prosecution and defense, she sentenced Bassett to two and a half years in jail, to serve 12 months with the balance suspended for two years while Bassett is on probation.

“This is a tragedy for every single life that’s been touch by Joey,” she said.

Goodwin’s sentence was a middle ground between the defense and prosecution’s recommendations. The prosecution asked for a sentence of four years in state prison, while Bassett’s attorney, Luke Ryan, asked that his client be sentenced to three years probation.

According to his obituary, Pearson was a hard worker, whose work included farming, tree cutting and haying. He was also known for feats of “derring-do” as early as the second grade, and had an exuberant personality.

He attended the Hartsbrook School in Hadley and graduated from Amherst Regional High School.

The party where Pearson died was held Dec. 10, 2016. A number of 17-year-olds attended the gathering, and alcohol was consumed there, which the defense characterized as a normal hangout and not a party.

“The players in all of this were not drunk,” said Ryan.

Bassett brought the firearm to the party without a trigger lock and, when he went outside to relieve himself, Pearson picked up the rifle and accidentally shot himself in the head, according to prosecutors.

The prosecution and defense disagreed about the circumstances under which the gun became loaded, an objection that was noted by the judge as she accepted Bassett’s guilty plea. The rifle was found by police with seven live rounds in the magazine.

Pearson’s mother, Wendy Pearson, of Shutesbury, read a victim impact statement before the judge’s sentencing, crying as she did so, as Pearson’s father’s rested his hand on her shoulder.

“I wondered what kind of a man he would become, with his fearlessness and his courage,” she said, quoting from a sympathy card that was sent to her.

Pearson’s mother described her son as bright, kind and noble, and that he was robbed of being able to grow a beard, get married and start a business. Additionally, she said her son repeatedly stood up for the underdog.

She also described his funeral, which hundreds of people attended, from around the country and abroad, despite more than 6 inches of snow falling that morning.

“So many young people were there, devastated and weeping,” she said. “So many parents shaken and sad. I wish I could convey to you how many hearts have been broken.”

“Joey’s former girlfriend can’t stop dreaming that he’s coming back to be with her,” she continued.

Additionally, Pearson vividly described the impact her son’s death had on her and her family.

“Being alive has become unbearable for both of us,” she said, speaking of her and Pearson’s father. “Joey’s youngest sister lost her best friend and confidant and protector.”

By the end of her testimony, Pearson was shaking, and her tears had been joined by others in the courtroom.

“I cry at work, I cry at the gym, I cry in the car. I cry through every holiday and birthday,” she said. “I can’t stand to hear conversations about other people’s children.

“We miss our son so much. I miss the way he made me laugh, the way he wrapped me in a bear hug … I miss the smell of him and I miss hearing his stories. I miss his feats of bravery and the way he would inspire us all with his courage,” she continued. “Over two years have gone by, and I still can’t bear to look at a photograph of my only son.”

Thomas also presented photos Pearson’s parents provided of their son.

Thomas said Bassett could have done any number of things to prevent Pearson’s death.

“The recklessness that was involved — it felt like a manslaughter,” said Thomas.

He also noted the impact of Pearson’s death.

“Death without malice is as devastating and as irrevocable as any other death case,” he said.

“Incarceration is an appropriate moral condemnation of the defendant’s carelessness,” Thomas continued.

Ryan acknowledged that Pearson was a remarkable young man, as well as how severely his loss has been felt.

“The pain in this courtroom is palpable,” he said.

Indeed, he said he didn’t think he’d ever heard a more moving victim impact statement than the one provided by Wendy Pearson.

“There’s not a word that I would say to disagree with anything that she offered,” he said. “That was an extraordinarily special young man.”

However, he also noted Bassett’s close relationship with Pearson.

“Zach Bassett used to go over to Joey Pearson’s house every single day” said Ryan. “This is one of his best friends.”

Indeed, he said Bassett is wracked with “mental anguish,” from the loss.

Ryan also said that while his client was negligent, he did not kill Pearson.

“This is not a manslaughter case,” he said.”We are millions of miles from there.”

He also described Bassett as a hardworking young man with intellectual challenges, who has been doing hard, physical work for 11 years.

“He climbs trees in the dead of winter when limbs are hanging over people’s houses,” he said. “This is the person that gets called.”

Additionally, Ryan noted Bassett’s lack of a criminal record.

In the end, however, Goodwin determined that a sentence solely of probation was not appropriate to the case.

Basset’s 2½-year sentence also included a condition that the firearm that took Pearson’s life be destroyed.

After Bassett was sentenced, his mother began to sob loudly, continuing to do so even as the courtroom cleared and she was led out.

Bera Dunau can be  reached at

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