The Wiscasset woman charged with murder in the death of a 4-year-old girl in her care waived her right to a jury trial Thursday.

Kendall Chick

The legal fate of Shawna Gatto, 43, now rests solely with Superior Court Justice William Stokes. She has pleaded not guilty to depraved indifference murder. The charge alleges that whether or not she intended to cause the child’s death, she acted with depraved indifference to the value of human life.

Kendall Chick died from blunt force trauma to the abdomen, and also had suffered from prior abuse and neglect, police say. Her Dec. 8 death was one of two in Maine last winter that were blamed on child abuse, prompting an investigation by the Legislature and calls to overhaul the state’s child protection system. The case comes amid a startling increase in confirmed cases of physical abuse of Maine children – 52 percent from 2008 to 2016.

Gatto appeared Thursday morning at the Knox County courthouse for a hearing on several motions in her case.

Stokes granted her request to waive her right to a jury trial and tentatively set a bench trial for late January. Philip Cohen, who is representing Gatto along with attorney Jeremy Pratt, declined to comment on her decision.

REASONS FOR CHOOSING BENCH TRIALS

Thea Johnson, an associate professor at the University of Maine School of Law, said the same legal standard applies in both bench and jury trials. The prosecution still has the burden of proving the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But there are several reasons why a defendant might opt for a bench trial instead of a jury trial, Johnson said.

First, Gatto’s case has become a high-profile one with statewide interest, but jurors are supposed to have no prior knowledge of a case that could affect their judgments.

“I would imagine that there is some concern that this has gotten real press attention,” said Johnson, who teaches criminal law. “It will be harder to find a jury anywhere in Maine.”

Johnson said it is also conventional thinking in the legal community that judges are less moved by emotion than juries. That could be important in a heart-wrenching case like this one, in which the charge of depraved indifference murder is a complicated one to apply.

“That’s the general reason people choose a bench trial over a jury trial, that they’re not convinced a jury can make a decision that’s free from emotion,” Johnson said.

Stokes worked as a criminal prosecutor in the Maine Attorney General’s Office before he was appointed a judge by Gov. Paul LePage in 2014.

During nearly 40 years in that office, one of the cases he prosecuted was against Sally Ann Schofield in 2002, another case involving a dead child that sent shock waves through the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Schofield was a state child caseworker caring for 5-year-old Logan Marr, who died after Schofield covered her face with duct tape and bound her to a high chair. Schofield, whose case also was decided by a judge rather than a jury, was acquitted of depraved indifference murder but convicted of manslaughter in 2002.

JUDGE TO REVIEW DEFENDANT INTERVIEWS

In Kendall Chick’s case, the state had placed the girl with Stephen Hood, her paternal grandfather, and Gatto, his fiancée.

Gatto told police she had been caring for the little girl the day she was found unresponsive in a bathtub, and police said they found bloodstains in multiple places in the home. Gatto has been in jail since she was arrested in December, and she was indicted by a grand jury in Lincoln County in January.

Hood has said Kendall was removed from her birth mother’s care because of neglect, and he did not know the whereabouts of either of the girl’s parents. Her mother, Alicia Chick, later told News Center Maine (WCSH/WBLZ) that she was living at the Oxford Street Shelter in Portland when she learned of her daughter’s death, and she said she wants answers about why the state didn’t do a better job of protecting her daughter.

Stokes will review the DHHS records in Kendall Chick’s case and decide whether to release them to the attorneys.

He also will review audio and video recordings of interviews with Gatto that took place before she was arrested. Gatto’s attorneys filed a motion to suppress statements she made in those conversations with two different investigators. They argue that she had already requested an attorney and had not been properly informed of her Miranda rights.

Both sides also will file briefs to explain their arguments on that motion, and a decision from the judge is not expected until at least September.

Recordings or transcripts of those statements are not available as part of the public case file. Cohen declined to go into detail about the interviews, but said they did not include a confession by Gatto.

“By no means are we saying she said anything incriminating,” he said.

TESTIMONY ON POLICE, GATTO INTERACTIONS

The prosecutors, assistant attorneys general John Alsop and Robert “Bud” Ellis, called two investigators as witnesses Thursday. Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office Detective Jared Mitkus and Maine State Police Detective Joshua Birmingham did not talk in detail about their interviews with Gatto, but they briefly described their interactions with her during the first hours and days after Kendall’s death.

Mitkus said he was with Gatto when she received a text message telling her the girl had died from her injuries. She was in the parking lot of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, waiting to be interviewed by state police. She was not under arrest at the time.

“She became upset,” Mitkus said.

Birmingham said he interviewed Gatto on Dec. 8 and Dec. 10. He told the judge the second interview ended when he began to challenge her version of events and she requested an attorney.

In a Dec. 14 arrest affidavit, another state police detective wrote that Gatto’s statements did not match the physical evidence found in the home or the autopsy findings.

“Shawna Gatto indicated she put Kendall Chick in the bathtub and she was fine, she went to get Kendall Chick chocolate milk a few feet away in the kitchen and returned to find Kendall Chick unresponsive in the tub,” the affidavit says.

Gatto’s attorneys also filed a motion related to the state’s chief medical examiner, Mark Flomenbaum, who performed the autopsy on Kendall. Gatto’s attorneys are asking the judge to allow them to introduce information at trial about Flomenbaum’s firing from the same job in Massachusetts in 2007. Stokes said he would wait until the trial was closer to rule on that motion.

During the hearing, Gatto answered the judge’s questions and at times spoke quietly with her attorneys. Her mother and fiancé sat silently in the courtroom. When approached by a reporter outside the courthouse, Hood continued walking to a nearby vehicle, and Gatto’s mother said she did not want to comment.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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