Wetumpka case prompts DA to seek stronger child-abuse punishment
WETUMPKA, AL – District Attorney Randall Houston wants to strengthen the penalty for aggravated child abuse, bringing the punishment up to par with murder and other violent crimes.
Houston’s move would change the punishment in aggravated Child Abuse cases where victims are under the age of 6.
“The aggravated Child Abuse statute covers children from infants to 18-year-olds,” Houston said. “It’s obvious that a teenager is better able to seek protection from an abuser than a child under the age of 6.”
“These are our youngest, most helpless victims. After a child is 6, they are usually in a school situation, where educators can recognize the signs of abuse.”
Houston represents the 19th Judicial Circuit, which includes Autauga, Chilton and Elmore counties. Currently, aggravated child abuse is a Class B felony, with a punishment range of two to 20 years in prison. Houston will be backing a bill in the 2016 legislative session that begins in February to stiffen the penalty to a Class A felony. Murder, attempted murder and other violent crimes are Class A felonies, with a punishment range of 10 to 99 years to life in prison.
By law, aggravated child abuse results in “serious bodily injury” to the victim.
A current case being investigated by his office moved Houston to seek the punishment upgrade.
“I stood in court last week to oppose a bond request made by a mother who, along with her boyfriend, heinously abused her 4-year-old son to a point that he was near death,” Houston said. “As I looked that defendant in the eye and thought of the ways she and her boyfriend had abused her own son, I realized that the current penalties for such monstrous acts are inadequate and must be toughened so those who commit them can stare at the four cold walls of a prison cell for the rest of their lives.”
Houston was referring to the case of Hallee Ann McLeod, 28, of Wetumpka, whose son was found unresponsive and injured in the back of a car in Panama City, Fla., in September. She is facing aggravated child abuse and chemical endangerment of a child charges in Elmore County, courthouse records show.
Last week Elmore County District Judge Glenn Goggans refused to lower her bond, which had been set at $300,000. She remained in the Elmore County Jail on Monday, jail records show.
Elmore County Sheriff Bill Franklin, who has been the county’s top cop for 24 years, calls the abuse “one of the worst cases I have seen.”
The child was discovered by Bay County, Fla., deputies as the car was parked in the courthouse parking lot. Scott Hicks, McLeods’ boyfriend, had driven to Panama City, Fla., to pay fines on an unrelated case. Local authorities were contacted by the Bay County Sheriff’s Office and an investigation began that showed the abuse of the boy occurred in Elmore County, Franklin said.
“Nothing can erase the trauma that this child suffered, but we can ensure that the severity of the penalty truly matches the severity of the crime,” Houston said. “Then perhaps justice can be fully obtained.
“As a prosecutor I take my responsibility to ensure the protection of the most defenseless among us very seriously, and toughening our aggravated child abuse law will held accomplish this mission.”
Houston has been successful in efforts to toughen punishments. After a series of alcohol related fatal boating accidents in the circuit, he fought a three-year battle to get the Legislature to toughen the homicide by vessel law.
The law was an unclassified felony, meaning it had a maximum punishment of five years in prison. The punishment for homicide by vessel law now allows prosecutors to seek the same punishment as cases of DUI related motor vehicle accidents. That means defendants can be charged with manslaughter or murder in DUI related boating accidents that result in fatalities.
Houston hopes the strengthening of the aggravated child abuse law doesn’t take as much time.
“We are in it for the long haul,” he said. “If it takes another long fight, we’re dedicated to doing whatever it takes to see this change implemented.”