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. This is ridiculous. Most JDs not practicing law don't know squat to justify calling themselves a lawyer. Maybe they should try visiting the inside of a courtroom before they go around calling themselves lawyers. This kind of promotional BS just increases the volume of people with JDs that are underqualified thereby dragging all the rest of us down likewise.

  2. I think it is safe to say that those Hoosier's with the most confidence in the Indiana judicial system are those Hoosier's who have never had the displeasure of dealing with the Hoosier court system.

  3. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  4. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

  5. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.