APB Info, February 2, 1999

IGNORANCE NO DEFENSE, COURT RULES--Unaware Parent Can Be Charged With Child Abuse

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- A man who shook his crying 4-month-old son said he had no idea baby-shaking was dangerous, even possibly lethal. The California Supreme Court said only his actions mattered.

The court ruled unanimously Monday that a parent or caretaker who directly harms a child can be convicted of felony abuse, punishable by up to six years in prison, if a jury finds the action posed a risk of serious injury or death. The parent's ignorance of the danger is irrelevant.

"There is nothing intrinsically distinct about the act of violently shaking a vulnerable infant that separates it from other methods of direct child abuse," said the opinion by Justice Janice Rogers Brown.

Defense warns of future effects
Attorney General Bill Lockyer said the ruling allows prosecutors to "better protect California's most vulnerable citizens." The crime is defined as willfully inflicting unjustifiable pain and suffering on a child under circumstances likely to cause great bodily harm or death.

Defense lawyer Barry A. Zimmerman said the ruling appears to allow felony convictions in borderline cases, where a parent's conduct "does not rise to the level of a vicious assault" but has unexpectedly bad consequences.

"The next case that comes up is going to be a parent that disciplined the child ... spanking or slapping," Zimmerman said.

Child has recovered
The case bore some similarity to the Massachusetts case of au pair Louise Woodward, convicted of murdering an 8-month-old by violently shaking him and slamming his head into a hard object.

A judge reduced the conviction to manslaughter and freed her, ruling that her actions, while unjustified, were not so dangerous that a reasonable person would have thought they were likely to cause death.

In the California case, 4-month-old Michael D. Sargent Jr. was found unconscious and not breathing on the floor of the family's Marysville apartment in August 1993.

His father, Michael Sargent Sr., first told police the child had fallen, but later admitted shaking him twice that day after losing his temper. He said he hadn't intended to hurt the baby and had no idea shaking could do so.

The child has fully recovered, Zimmerman said, quoting Sargent.

Shaken-baby syndrome
Sargent was convicted of felony child abuse and sentenced to 11 years in prison, the maximum six years for the crime and five years for a previous felony conviction.

The 3rd District Court of Appeals overturned the felony conviction in December 1997, ruling 2-1 that the charge required proof Sargent knew or should have known how dangerous his conduct was. That ruling would have reduced the conviction to a misdemeanor.

The court said the so-called shaken-baby syndrome -- medical findings that shaking can cause serious injury to children up to 18 months or 2 years old -- was developed only recently by doctors and was not widely known to the public in 1993.

But the state's high court said Sargent was properly convicted because he deliberately shook the child without justification. The jury, not the parent, decides whether the act posed a risk of serious injury or death, Brown said. ęCopyright 1999 APB Multimedia Inc. All rights reserved


Return to Newsroom Index or to Table of Contents