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. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  2. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  3. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  4. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  5. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

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