A judge sentenced a Casper man Friday to seven to 10 years in prison for child abuse stemming from a six-day period last fall when he had custody of his daughter.
Justin Thomas Ross was originally charged in October 2016 with aggravated child abuse and accused of throwing his 21-month-old daughter against a wall and fracturing her skull. He pleaded in May to a lesser charge of child abuse and admitted to disciplining his daughter to the point of bruising. He denied having anything to do with the girl’s broken skull.
The skull fractures were discussed extensively Friday in Natrona County District Court as prosecutor Trevor Schenk tried to convince a judge that Ross should be sentenced to nine to 10 years in prison.
Ross’ attorney, Nick Carter, argued for his client to be sentenced to probation.
In sentencing Ross, Natrona County District Judge Catherine Wilking cited a pre-sentence investigatory document that noted Ross showed “a lack of accountability” for his actions.
Ross declined to speak when Wilking offered him an opportunity, shaking his head. At his lawyer’s prodding, his leaned into the microphone and said “No, ma’am.”
The two-hour sentencing hearing began with 45 minutes of testimony by Casper police Detective Tiffany Elhart. She laid out the investigative process in the case, as Schenk displayed photographs of the bruised child.
Authorities had been notified of the case when the child’s mother brought her daughter to Wyoming Medical Center saying the child was bruised and acting agitated, the detective said. Doctors at the hospital examined the child and discovered two broken ribs and two skull fractures in addition to the visible injuries. The bruises were in various stages of healing, which indicated that the injuries were sustained over a period of time rather than all at once, the detective said.
Doctors also noted broken blood vessels in the child’s ears, which a doctor later said could be a result of choking.
Elhart said that when she told Ross in October that police had a witness to his conduct, Ross replied, “What, a 3-year-old?” The victim’s older brother had been interviewed and told investigators “(Ross) actually took (the victim)’s head off,” Elhart said.
Schenk then enlisted the help of a second detective and brought out a child’s pink bed.
Ross had initially told investigators that the child’s injuries might be the result of her jumping or falling from a bed.
While he cross-examined Elhart, Carter tried to cast doubt on the conclusion that Ross had caused the more extensive injuries, implying that they could have occurred after he returned the girl to her mother.
Dr. Eugene DuQuette, who treated the girl when she was brought to Wyoming Medical Center, took the stand next in green hospital scrubs.
It takes very significant force for young children to break their ribs, the doctor said, noting that the developing chest is mostly surrounded by cartilage. He said skull and rib fractures like the ones the child suffered rarely occur as the result of a fall.
Beds like the one in court were designed to prevent injuries to children, built low enough that a fall would not harm their occupants, DuQuette said.
Schenk then called up CAT scan and X-ray images taken on the day of the report, which showed the child’s head and chest. The doctor said the ribs had already begun to heal, indicating that the injuries were at least two days old when the images were made.
Under cross-examination, the doctor said it was unclear when the injuries were actually sustained, however. He said they were at least 2 days old but could be significantly older than that.
Family, friends speak
After the evidence presentation, the defense called seven friends and family members of the defendant who spoke positively of Ross. The seven people did not swear oaths and were not subject to cross-examination. The statements mostly described Ross as good with children, honest and caring.
“I’ve never seen him — at all — do anything violent,” Ross’s brother said.
The mother of the victim then gave a statement, beginning so quickly that the court reporter asked her to slow down.
She said her children are now afraid to meet new people, and are comfortable only around her and their grandmother.
“We’ve lost a lot, not just materialistically but emotionally,” she said.
After speaking, the woman walked back to her seat, with tears visible in her eyes, holding a tissue to her reddened nose.
After the defense and prosecution argued for their preferred sentences, Wilking noted the defendant’s lack of criminal history. She then described the child as an especially vulnerable victim, owing to her young age, and cited testimony about the bruising in saying “this was not an isolated incident.”
She handed down the decade-long sentence, before Ross left the courtroom under the custody of bailiffs.
Schenk descibed the sentence as “very just.”
Carter declined to comment about the case.