Friday, January 18, 2002

Shaken-baby' case brings 7 years

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — A 28-year-old Hamilton man who was convicted in a controversial “shaken-baby” case was sentenced Thursday to seven years in prison.

        Butler County Common Pleas Judge Keith Spaeth imposed the sentence — and a $10,000 fine — on James Neil Howard as his 2-year-old son, Draven, toddled around the courtroom. A jury in November convicted Mr. Howard of hurting Draven on April 4, 2000, but acquitted him on a charge of abusing the child three days earlier.

        The case was much debated for several reasons, particularly because the county's Children Services Board secured a second medical opinion on the cause of Draven's injuries.

        After reviewing the child's medical records, a Massachusetts neurosurgeon said some of Draven's brain injuries could have dated to his vacuum- and forceps-assisted birth in January 2000 at Mercy Hospital Fairfield. But doctors who examined the child at Children's Hospital Medical Center discounted or dismissed that possibility and said the injuries presented compelling evidence of abuse.

        In court Thursday, as Mr. Howard stood in a mustard-colored jail jumpsuit, Draven reached out and grabbed his father's fingers while his mother, Angie, held him.

        “I didn't envision a child that was going to be walking,” Judge Spaeth said, citing previous statements about the seriousness of the child's injuries and dozens of seizures he suffered.

        A Children Services caseworker pointed out that Draven began to walk much later than normal and his ability to see and learn remain uncertain.

        Judge Spaeth said that seeing the child appear “reasonably normal,” influenced him to shave a year off the maximum eight-year sentence, which he had intended to impose.

        Assistant Prosecutor Steve Tolbert didn't argue for a specific sentence but said prison time was appropriate.

        Defense lawyer Michael Shanks had argued for probation.

        In court documents, Mr. Shanks pointed out that Mr. Howard had no previous contact with the court system.

        In court Thursday, Judge Spaeth noted “conflicting evidence” in the case, but he concluded: “My duty is to respect the decision of the jury.”

        After sentencing, Mr. Shanks declined to comment but said his client will appeal.


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