Tuesday's news of the sudden downturn in Whittington's health sparked speculation about the legal issues the vice president could possibly face were his hunting-mate to die. However, experts say it is unlikely Cheney would face criminal charges since officials at all levels found no evidence of wrongdoing on the private Armstrong ranch.
According to a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department report issued Monday, a "hunter's judgment factor" was the main cause of the shooting. Whittington downed a bird while hunting quail and went to retrieve it, the report details. But while he was out of the hunting line, the report continues, "another covey was flushed and Cheney swung on a bird and fired, striking Whittington in the face, neck and chest at approximately 30 yards. Cheney was using a 28 gauge shotgun loaded with 7 ½ (bird) shots."
"From all accounts, it's a straightforward accident, nothing reckless," says Tom Harvey, a spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which investigated the case Saturday. "In the sad event that he (Whittington) does die, that wouldn't change the facts of this case. We would change the classification of what happened from 'injury' to 'fatality,' but our department wouldn't initiate an investigation."
While it appears Cheney probably didn't follow all of the Texas Parks and Wildlife's safety tips – such as, "look around and see who or what might be in the line of fire" and "always carry your gun pointed in a safe direction" – the only legal obstacle Cheney has faced thus far has been a warning citation from the Parks and Wildlife Department for breaking Texas hunting law when he and Whittington failed to buy a $7 stamp allowing them to shoot upland game birds. He has since paid up.
If Whittington were to die as a result of the shooting, Texas state law requires a new report be filed classifying the accident to a fatality, CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen says, "but that doesn't change the conditions of the case."
The district attorney's office could decide to convene a grand jury if Whittington were to die, but it is not required by law, said Gerry Morris, a Texas attorney of the board of directors of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. And, it's doubtful this would happen. "It's a plain regrettable accident, not a criminal offense," Morris says. "Only if there was an intentional act or criminal negligence would there be any charges. And they would have likely filed these by now anyway."
"And even if they did, it is almost inconceivable that anything would come of it," Cohen says. "The officials have already made an evaluation that the shooting was an accident. No investigation would change this unless there was a false report or proof evidence was tampered with."
As Sheriff Ramon Salinas who investigated the Cheney shooting, told CBS News correspondent Lee Cowan, "Everyone knew it was an accident and nothing criminal."
And that includes the victim. Peter Banko, the hospital administrator where Whittington is being cared for, says Whittington sees it as "much ado about nothing."
"If the victim of the accident doesn't believe there's a criminal act and he doesn't want to pursue a criminal charge, it is almost entirely unlikely any further investigation would occur," Morris says.