Thursday, August 30, 2007
Mother found guilty of abuse
By SUE WATSON
A Marshall County jury convicted a Byhalia woman on a felony child abuse charge last week in a trial that spanned three days.
Fonshanta Anthony, 25, of the Broadmoor Apartments in Byhalia, was sentenced to 20 years in the state penal system by presiding Judge Andrew Howorth following the return of a guilty verdict. Anthony was handed over to the custody of Marshall County Jail immediately after sentencing.
The jury found Anthony guilty of intentionally immersing her nine-month-old son in scalding water in the bathtub in her apartment on July 18, 2005.
If the jury had felt it did not have sufficient evidence to arrive at a guilty verdict on the felony child abuse charge, it was instructed to consider a lesser charge of felony child neglect. Felony child abuse carried a maximum sentence (when the incident occurred) of 20 years imprisonment. Felony child neglect carried a maximum five-year sentence.
The state presented photographic evidence of the burn pattern on young Briston Anthony, who will be 3 this September.
Expert testimony from surgeon Dr. Arthur Sanford indicated Briston Anthony suffered third degree burns (full skin thickness burns) over 60 percent of his body. The burns involved the extremities, buttocks, groin area and abdomen up to the nipple line. Dr. Sanford is with the Shriners Hospital in Galveston, Texas, and he attended the child after he was transported from LeBonheur Hospital to Galveston for wound treatment.
Briston has undergone numerous treatments and operations including skin grafting, and will have many more operations ahead of him as he grows, Sanford said.
Physicians at LeBonheur suspected intentional child abuse by the strait-line burn pattern that showed the child had been seated in scalding hot water.
Sanford said physicians and health care workers are required by law to report injuries that look to be caused by intentional abuse.
Physicians at LeBonheur first reported to Marshall County social workers that the burns looked intentional shortly after the child was received at the hospital in Memphis.
LeBonheur also contacted the Shriner’s Hospital in Galveston for help, and the child was transported there where he has received treatment since that time.
Sanford testified that both physical findings and an extensive psychosocial history and family history work-up and clinical statements by social workers altogether indicated Briston’s injuries were intentionally inflicted.
Texas law requires any adult to report suspicious injuries to child protective services, he said. A psychologist at the Shrine actually filed the report, he said.
State prosecutors called witnesses, including Sanford and Byhalia police investigator Clyde Gunter, who testified that the defendant had presented conflicting statements to law enforcement and other agencies of how the child was scalded.
Sanford said when a defendant changes his story and provides multiple versions of how an incident happens, or if the defendant attributes the injuries to others who may not be able to perform the acts, the defendant’s statements are suspect.
A photo taken by Gunter the night of the incident showed the thermostat setting on one of the waterheater elements in the apartment was set at about 160 degrees.
Sanford also testified that the defendant showed lack of care giving concern, having left the hospital while the infant was in surgery at the Shrine.
Other risk factors for the family and Briston included testimony by Sanford that the baby seemed uncomfortable in the presence of his mother and required more anxiety control medications when visited by the mother.
Briston was hospitalized for one month after his injuries and made five trips to the operating room for grafts or other wound treatments and therapy between July 25 and August 16, 2005, Sanford said. He also was scheduled for 19 tub room procedures to remove dead or infected tissue between July 20 and December 15, 2005.
Sanford said Briston will require multiple reconstructive operations in the future in order to regain some use of the hands and feet.
He testified that the baby’s injuries were life-threatening.
Briston is now in foster care in Galveston and in the adoption process, according to his adoptive mother Cynthia Bowen.
General surgeon Kaneka Bowen was in her first months of residency at the Shriners Hospital when she saw Briston as a patient. She in turn expressed concern to her mother Cynthia about foster care.
“We had rounds every morning and found out the child’s situation and that the mother was being sent back to Mississippi under suspicion of child abuse,” Dr. Bowen said in a separate interview during the trial last week.
“So Briston had no family or parent here,” the doctor said.
Cynthia Bowen explained further how she and her husband became involved as foster parents.
“She (Kaneka) called me one day and said, ‘Mom, we have this situation. Could you come down for a couple of months until they find foster care?’ ”
Cynthia Bowen took over the care of Briston and carried him daily to the hospital for treatment, she said, staying in Galveston with her daughter and the child from August 2005 until April 2006.
Bowen said her husband, who works as a manager in another city, came to Galveston to visit her on weekends during that period.
Cynthia Bowen was a part-time writer and a stay-at-home homemaker when she became involved as a care giver for Briston.
She said the experience has been life-changing.
“My husband and I were comfortably into the empty nest syndrome and took vacations,” she said. “Now we are in the position to have a 2-year-old in our home that is progressing but who still needs constant attention because of the nature of his injuries.
“We see Briston as a blessing to our family and we don’t feel deprived (of travel). It is a blessing for him and to us. He has brought our family - we were always close - even closer together because of our focus on him. It’s been hard - not a walk in the park - but at the end of the day, it has been worth it.”
The Bowens said Briston showed signs of trust and bonding within weeks after coming into the family.
“But he hurt so much from his injuries he didn’t always want to be held,” Cynthia Bowen said. “Now he has his toys and is kept very busy. Our whole family is involved.”
One of the Bowens’ daughters has applied for adoption, she said.
Cynthia Bowen testified at trial that Briston can walk with difficulty. But he will likely have some type of surgery through puberty. With growth spurts the scar tissue has to be nicked for growth to occur, she said.
“Briston’s skin rips easily and he’s always scratching,” she said. “We have to watch him and his whole body for injury and infection.”
District Attorney Ben Creekmore, assistant DA Lani Hill, and defense attorney Dolan in their closing arguments to the jury, expressed empathy with the victim saying they too have young children and the case affected them deeply.
Hill said she has a child about the age of Briston as well as five other children.
In closing arguments Hill said the defendant had given three versions of how the incident happened, including in two instances of placing the blame on her 2-year-old and a 14-year-old.
“There were three witnesses, Briston, her 2-year-old son, and the defendant,” Hill said.
“The blame is right there,” Hill said pointing to the defendant.
Creekmore said he has three children. Dolan said he has three.
“It’s extraordinarily difficult to look at those photos and imagine the suffering,” he said.
Creekmore said, “We know child abuse occurs. And we all (as parents) have stresses.
Referring to Sanford’s testimony about the location of pain receptors near the skin surface and the pain Briston has and will continue to experience, Creekmore added: “The rest of the story in this case is that those who had pain receptors stepped up and helped.”
He was referring to the medical workers and the Bowen family.
Pointing to the defendant, Creekmore added – “There is one who had no pain receptors in this case and that’s that monster over there.”
In a post-trial interview, Dolan added more about how the facts in the case affected him personally.
“This was one of the most difficult cases I have ever handled,” he said. “The burn injuries to little Briston were catastrophic, and the photographs of his injuries were very disturbing. The state’s case was entirely circumstantial, since there were no eyewitnesses to the occurrence. Dr. Sanford’s testimony was very strong. Our position was that the proof did not show beyond a reasonable doubt that Fonshanta Anthony intentionally caused Briston to be burned. The jury disagreed. We received a fair trial.
“My preparation of the case and the trail itself deepened my love and affection for my own small children and for the children of my colleagues Lani Hill and Ben Creekmore. The outcome is hard for my client to bear. Fortunately, Briston continues to receive the finest medical treatment, and he is being cared for by very loving and committed foster parents. This was just a very distressing situation all around. Each of us individually and together as a community has an obligation to protect children. Children are completely vulnerable. If we fail to protect them, we depreciate ourselves as a society.”
The state called seven witnesses: two from law enforcement, one social worker, one neighbor to the defendant, one surgeon, one foster parent and the manager of Broadmoore Apartments at the time of the incident.
The defense called only one witness, the maintenance worker at Broadmoore Apartments at the time of the incident.
The defendant, Fonshanta Anthony, chose not to give testimony under her Fifth Amendment Rights granted in the U.S. Constitution.
John Dolan of Olive Branch served as state appointed defense attorney for the defendant.
A jury of 14 was impanelled Monday and heard all the testimony and evidence presented. Twelve jurors were chosen to decide on the verdict: four white females, four black females, one white male, one hispanic male, and two black males.
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