On Dec. 8, 2017, Kendall Chick, who had just turned 4, died of both acute and chronic child abuse. Her grandfather’s fiancee, Shawna Gatto, was charged with depraved indifference murder in the child’s death.

Gatto’s defense attorneys chose to have a bench trial, meaning there would be no jury to decide the verdict; instead, a judge would make the final decision regarding her innocence or guilt. The trial started April 1 and lasted five days. Gatto was convicted April 30 and sentenced June 25 to 50 years in prison.

I attended the trial, as well as the sentencing, in an effort to get a firsthand understanding of how Maine’s judicial system functions, especially when dealing with child abuse cases that result in the death of a child.

Superior Court Justice William Stokes presided over the trial, later announcing his verdict and delivering the sentence. Throughout the proceedings, Justice Stokes created and managed an environment of fairness and decorum for all involved, giving equal consideration to the prosecutors, defense attorneys and witnesses. The defense had a difficult task and faced long odds of a positive outcome for their client, given the overwhelming evidence against her, but Justice Stokes consistently provided every opportunity to allow the defendant’s position to be presented fairly and thoroughly.

It’s important for Maine citizens to know that you can be proud of the judicial process in Maine – not because someone who committed a heinous crime was found guilty, but because the system is designed to provide justice for all involved. Justice Stokes gave a thoughtful and detailed explanation of how he arrived at a guilty verdict for Gatto. His was not an emotional decision, nor was it influenced by public pressure. Rather, he presented a decision based on the facts and details of the case, using as his guide the principles of law and the passion for justice.

Justice Stokes made it clear when sentencing Gatto that what she did to Kendall Chick was “outrageous, revolting, shocking and brutal abuse.” He also acknowledged, however, that he had considered a life sentence but decided on a term of 50 years instead, citing evidence that Gatto had become overwhelmed with her responsibilities caring for Kendall and two other small children. This is but one example of how carefully this case was evaluated and guided by judicial protocol. Based on our judicial system’s impressive record and considering the high quality of professionalism among our judges, we all can rest assured that justice will be done.

The chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, Leigh Saufley, deserves significant credit for establishing during her administration the omnipresent tone of justice and integrity that makes up the fabric of our judicial system.

Protecting the children who are placed in state care should be the top priority of the Legislature, the state agencies responsible for these children and our judicial system.  One more child dying as a result of abuse and neglect is not acceptable. We’ve known about the problems and shortcomings of the state child protective system for too long, so there is no excuse, not one, for another tragic death.

The governor has provided the funds necessary to address many of the existing problems, and now the Legislature must assume a position of critical oversight of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services‘ role in creating a safe environment for these vulnerable children. Most of all, we need to understand that protecting and watching over these children is a responsibility that we all have to accept by staying alert to signs that may indicate a child is in trouble. Leaving the “fix” to one bureaucratic agency is a proven formula for failure. There are no more excuses.

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