A Guatemalan immigrant who burned his 5-year-old son's hand over an open flame for stealing a pack of gum was fined $100 by an Orange County judge who noted "customs and habits" in reducing the charges.
The father, Wellington Soto, had faced a possible sentence of up to six years in prison had he been convicted of felony child abuse.
"We find ourselves in the cross-current of customs and habits," Superior Court Judge James O. Perez said in sentencing Soto on Tuesday. The prosecutor on the case urged Perez not to reduce the charges for a "cross-cultural reason," but the judge responded that the offense was "an isolated incident with a purpose.... Maybe it will keep Junior from being one of our customers downstream.
"What Mr. Soto was doing was of a corrective nature, even though I think if he sat back and thought about what he did, he might have taken a different approach."
Perez added that many juvenile criminals start out with petty thefts.
The decision angered the prosecutor.
"I can't think of any other situation that would merit a felony than burning your own child on a gas flame," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Karen Schatzle.
"It's not just the physical pain, but the mental anguish of having your hand placed in a flame, by a parent, no less," she said.
"I think anybody who intentionally burns a child should go to state prison."
At the Soto apartment in Anaheim on Friday, Wellington and his wife, Luz Soto, said they regretted what happened and have learned from the experience.
"We know now that what we did was wrong," Luz Soto said. "This was a very difficult situation for us, and we are trying to overcome it."
She added that the family was not entirely familiar with American laws and customs when it comes to disciplining children.
"People who have children understand how trying it is with children," she said. "We are from another country."
But Armando Navarro, chairman of the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside, said burning a child's hand in punishment is not a cultural norm in Guatemala or anywhere else in Latin America.
"I would hate for anyone to believe that our culture relies on that type of punishment in terms of correcting a wrong," Navarro said.
During the sentencing hearing Tuesday, Judge Perez told attorneys that he was moved to reduce the charges by the fact that Soto was trying to discipline his son, even though the punishment was too severe. Soto, himself, had been disciplined in that fashion when he was a child, the judge noted.
"We're talking a package of gum, but you go down to juvenile hall and start checking around those kids and they all started with little things," the judge said.
A misdemeanor conviction, he added, brings a reasonable resolution to the case.
"I dare say that we've done two things: Hopefully, the child has learned a lesson and, hopefully, Senior has learned a lesson," Perez said.
The incident began with a New Year's Day trip to an Anaheim market. Soto noticed his 5-year-old chewing gum even though they hadn't purchased any at the store, according to court records.
After the boy admitted he stole the gum, Soto took him home, placed his hand over the gas stove and turned on the flame.
Prosecutors allege that Soto then bandaged the boy's hand and told him not to tell anyone about what happened. A few days later, one of the boy's teachers noticed the bandage and called authorities.
The boy was never examined by a doctor, but prosecutors said the burn was severe and damaged several layers of skin.
In reducing the charges, however, Perez said he had concluded that the wound was not that severe. Prosecutors presented evidence that Soto had hit the boy with a belt on several occasions, but the judge said he did not consider that child abuse.
Soto's attorney said her client didn't deserve to go to prison.
"What he was doing was trying to raise his child correctly," public defender Jamalyn Ollinger said. "Although not the appropriate action to have taken, his motives were appropriate."
But Kathy McCarrell, executive director of the Orange County Child Abuse Prevention Center, said she believes the judge sided with the abuser instead of the victim
"Do you think it would have been a $100 fine if he'd done this to a stranger?" she said. "I think burns are particularly damaging because they are so painful and permanent."
Luz Soto said she hopes to put the incident behind her. "We don't want people to interpret what happened the wrong way," she said. "Now our principal mission is to be better parents every day."
Perez is a veteran judge who retired several years ago and serves on a part-time basis at the Fullerton courthouse. He is known for taking great care in how he sentences first-time offenders.
"He is an extremely fair, honorable and compassionate man," said Nancy Clark, a Newport Beach sentencing consultant. "He treats everyone in his courtroom as human beings and is not a rubber-stamp for anyone."
* Times staff writer Daniel Yi contributed to this report.
Article received on Saturday, April 27 2002 at 10:59 EDT
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