An Ohio woman broke into sobs in a Manchester courtroom on Wednesday while pleading guilty to a negligent homicide charge connected to the accidental shooting death of a Manchester man last August.
Jorjianna Rittenhour, 33, asked a judge if she could sit, and hunched over the table gasping while her defense attorney tried to console her. Rittenhour admitted killing Steven Asselin, 37, on Aug. 22 at his Bridge Street apartment.
It happened while she was examining his 9mm handgun and trying out a red-dot laser scope.
She will spend about the next 10 months in prison as part of a plea deal that includes sentence suspensions based on good behavior and participation in counseling. She received credit for 171 days spent in jail waiting for the case resolution.
“Ten months, is that what your son’s life is worth?” said Denise Asselin, the mother of the victim, after Rittenhour pleaded guilty before Superior Court Judge Amy Messer.
Asselin also noted that Rittenhour will have to be on good behavior for five years or face imposition of a suspended sentence. Rittenhour was arrested twice for drugs while out on bail on the negligent homicide charge.
“I think the odds are in our favor,” Asselin said.
Rittenhour — who was born in Massachusetts and spent much of her life in northern New England — was visiting Manchester from Ohio when she ended up in Asselin’s apartment. He had a Glock 9mm and she was examining it when he told her to squeeze the trigger slightly to activate the laser.
She did so, the gun went off and the bullet struck Asselin in the head.
“I shot him. It was an accident. I was just playing with his gun,” Rittenhour screamed when police arrived, according to the prosecutor, Assistant Hillsborough County Attorney Amy Manchester.
Rittenhour’s defense attorney said that two other visitors refused to let Rittenhour use their phone or to comfort her. They fled the apartment.
“The only person who was a friend to Mr. Asselin was Mrs. Rittenhour,” said public defender Julian Jefferson. He also said that Asselin assured her multiple times the gun was empty.
When Judge Messer invited her to speak, Rittenhour, broke out into sobs. Speaking on her behalf, Jefferson said she lost a child of her own and understands what the death means to the Asselin family.
The sentence also requires Rittenhour to participate in counseling programs in prison and to have no contact with the Asselin family. Her suspended sentence amounts to 90 days to seven years.
Hillsborough County Attorney Michael Conlon said he and his team had a lot of concern about the evidence and the witnesses in the case. He would not discuss specifics.
“There were concerns about our ability to be successful at trial,” he said. The key would be whether the shooting involved criminal negligence or was a mere accident, he said.
Asselin was a chef and worked at several restaurants over the years, including the Charter Oak Country Club in Hudson, the family said.
While out on bail, Rittenhour was twice arrested on drug charges: possession of crack-cocaine in Plaistow in February and possession of methamphetamine in Nashua in April. She received a suspended sentence in the Nashua case and her Plaistow case is pending.
In addressing Messer, Asselin’s family members said his 12-year-old son no longer has a father and family holidays will never be the same.
“I can’t imagine my son lying there motionless with no one by his side who loved him,” Denise Asselin said.
His sister, Sarah Asselin, said she suffers from anxiety and depression since her brother’s death.
“No one can ever take away my memories of my brother, but Jorjianna Rittenhour took away any chance of future memories,” she said.