Justices affirm sentence in child torture case

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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For the first time, the Indiana Supreme Court today affirmed a trial court's sentence of life without parole for a Lafayette mother who had pleaded guilty to torturing and killing her stepdaughter.

In Michelle Gauvin v. State of Indiana, No. 79S00-0702-CR-65, the state's highest court ruled 4-1 in a direct appeal that Tippecanoe Superior Judge Thomas Busch correctly sentenced the Lafayette mother for murder, confinement, and neglect of her 4-year-old stepdaughter, Aiyana. The girl died from head trauma in March 2005 after months of abuse and neglect. She had been tied to various objects and beaten, including being hit with a broken cutting board, having her mouth duct taped shut, being bound to a booster seat and play gate, and forced to sleep on the floor of a non-heated room in a plastic pan to the point she became malnourished and dehydrated. The opinion also notes that the girl was forced to view bondage pictures of herself tied up and bound.

At one point, the mother claimed that Aiyana sometimes acted defiantly or disrespectfully and forced her to take disciplinary measures.

Michelle Gauvin, who avoided the death penalty by pleading guilty in 2006, received a sentence of life without parole. Her husband and Aiyana's father, Christian Gauvin, went through separate criminal proceedings and received a 50-year sentence for his role in the child's abuse and ultimate death. In late 2007, the Indiana Court of Appeals declined to reduce his penalty.

Michelle challenged the trial court's finding of torture as an aggravator and its rejection of her extreme emotional disturbance as a mitigator, but a majority of the state justices affirmed the trial judge's decision.

"While there may be a scenario that walks the line between parental abuse and outright torture, this is not such as case," Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard wrote. "Michelle submitted Aiyana to abuse so far in excess of its claimed purpose that her actions surely constituted torture. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding torture as an aggravating circumstance."

The court also noted the trial judge gave adequate consideration to her claims of emotional disturbance but determined the aggravators outweighed those factors. Describing her actions as "heinous and cruel," the majority noted nothing in her presentation was persuasive enough for the court to revise her sentence.

But Justice Frank Sullivan disagreed with his colleagues, writing that the court has ventured into an area with its affirmation that it shouldn't have. Rather than the life without parole sentence, Justice Sullivan wrote that he'd prefer that Michelle receive a 65-year concurrent sentence for the convictions of murder, confinement, and neglect of a dependent.

"I respect the analysis of Michelle's sentence by the trial court and my colleagues and agree with it in many respects. But this Court has never affirmed a sentence of life without possibility of parole for a mother who has pled guilty to killing her child or stepchild and I do not believe we should do so here," he wrote.

Justice Sullivan weighed the aggravators and mitigators in the case - her guilty plea, diagnosed psychological disorders, absence of criminal history, past history of being a good mother to her two children, and the relative punishment of 50 years her husband and the girl's father received. While agreeing that Michelle should spend the rest of her life in prison, Justice Sullivan determined that her sentence was "disproportionately severe" in light of Christian's penalty.

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  1. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  2. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  3. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.

  4. rensselaer imdiana is doing same thing to children from the judge to attorney and dfs staff they need to be investigated as well

  5. Sex offenders are victims twice, once when they are molested as kids, and again when they repeat the behavior, you never see money spent on helping them do you. That's why this circle continues