Why are sentences for caretakers convicted of shaking babies to severe injury or death so light?

Breaunna

RICHMOND, Va. — Blind and unable to walk, talk or eat, time with her mom outside the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU is rare for nine-year-old Breaunna. “Bre gets around the clock care, she has the G tube and she gets seizures,” Crystal Helms, Bre’s mom, said.

But, Bre was not born this way.

Helms said Bre’s biological father shook his daughter so hard when she was just 10 weeks old that it left her with permanent brain damage.

“I didn’t know whether she was going to live or die,” Helms said.

Her ex was arrested, and later pleaded guilty in a North Carolina court to felony child abuse.

His sentence: less than two years in prison.

“You shouldn’t be able to just serve two years, get out and move along with life like nothing ever happened,” Helms said.

Breaunna

CBS 6 reporter Melissa Hipolit spent months going through court files and found many similar cases, some where children died, but the prison sentences were never longer than four years.

Among them, 8-month-old Regan Makenna Johnson, who died after she was violently shaken by her babysitter back in 2004. Julie York Harris served four years in prison.

In addition, four-month-old Shane Daniel Walls was brutally shaken by his father, Cory Daniel Walls. He too served four years behind bars.

“I’d like to know why,” Helms said.

CBS 6 tried getting a handle on how many of the caretakers in these types of cases received short sentences, but they do not track that in Virginia.

Crystal Helms, Bre's mom

Crystal Helms, Bre’s mom

Richmond Prosecutor Mary Langer said long sentences in shaken baby cases are rare.

“They are frequently lower than people on the outside looking at the nature of the injury to the child might expect,” Langer said.

Langer said there are several reasons why, including getting a jury or judge to understand the complicated medical diagnosis.

“Jurors who have kids are thinking, you know, I’ve been frustrated with my own kids, and it’s hard sometimes when they won’t stop crying or whatever. That’s not the same thing,” Langer said.

Doctor Robin Foster, who heads up the Child Protective Team at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, has testified in more than 100 of these kinds of cases. She shows rooms full of people the violence it takes to kill a child.

“It is very rapid and very forceful,” Foster said.

Foster said it is hard for people to swallow.

“I think people want to minimize the violence of it,” Foster said.

Dr. Robin Foster

Dr. Robin Foster

Defense Attorney Todd Stone said sentences typically reflect the strength of a case, and in shaken baby cases it is often hard to prove what happened.

“Many times it’s because the evidence is not as strong because you don’t have an eyewitness and videotape,” Stone said.

Langer said sentencing guidelines also play a role. “If you have offenses that have historically been undercharged, under-reported under responded to then the guideline range for those sentences is lower,” Langer said.

When Helms looks at Bre though, it is hard for her to understand the system and its outcomes.

For her, she sees a little girl who had her whole life ahead of her until her dad took it all away.

“Her life has basically been robbed and for someone to just serve a short sentence and go on and live their life like nothing ever happened is just mind boggling,” Helms said.