ILNews

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. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  2. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  3. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  4. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

  5. Can I get this form on line,if not where can I obtain one. I am eligible.

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