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.