Credit: Beth Brogan | BDN

WISCASSET, Maine — Superior Court Justice William Stokes sentenced Shawna Gatto to 50 years for the murder of 4-year-old Kendall Chick.

After a week-long trial in April, Stokes found Gatto guilty of depraved indifference murder.

On Tuesday, Stokes catalogued the list of injuries witnesses testified to during Gatto’s trial, saying, “It’s difficult for me to comprehend what Kendall went through … the poor thing really didn’t have much of a chance, and the chance she did have rested with Ms. Gatto and Mr. [Stephen] Hood. Those were the two who could have done something.”

Hood was Chick’s grandfather and Gatto’s fiance. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services removed Chick from her mother’s custody and placed her with Gatto and Hood three years before her death on Dec. 8, 2017.

Chick’s death and that of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy three months later prompted legislative investigations into their deaths, a state investigation into the child welfare system, changes to the system by lawmakers and a contracted report from the department.

[Maine 4-year-old suffered as many as 20 head injuries, prosecutor says]

Prosecutors had sought a 65-year sentence. In arguing for that penalty, Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber told Stokes on Tuesday that Chick suffered “excruciating pain over an extended period of time” before her death.

Arguing that “torture” and “extreme cruelty,” Chick’s age, and that Gatto has not taken responsibility for the death are all aggravating factors, Macomber said, “This was the ultimated act of domestic violence — the beating death over a period of months of a child by her primary caregiver.”

During the trial, experts from the Maine State Police crime lab testified that Chick’s DNA and what they surmised to be her blood stains had been found throughout the Wiscasset home she shared with Gatto and Hood. The state’s medical examiner also testified that Chick died from blunt force trauma to her head, a “catastrophic” traumatic injury to her abdomen and chronic “child abuse syndrome,” or multiple injuries to many parts of her body over time.

Macomber said the public has been “shocked and horrified” by the case, and that it has led to legislative and executive-branch hearings to prevent such crimes in the future.

[As new leaders take over Maine’s child welfare system, caseworkers say they’re still ‘drowning’]

But Gatto’s attorney, Jeremy Pratt, responded that any death affects the community, not just Chick’s. He also said that Gatto’s failure to take responsibility cannot be seen as an aggravating factor because that was a decision by her attorneys.

Pratt asked Stokes to sentence Gatto to 30 years, citing her age and “strong prospects for rehabilitation” as mitigating factors.

Adding that Gatto “is not a monster,” Pratt said, “She’s someone worth giving an opportunity to to get out before she dies in prison. She is someone who has value to give back.”

Stokes concurred during the reading of the verdict, saying, “I don’t view her as a monster.”

“Her initial motives were good,” Stokes said of Gatto’s willingness to care for her son’s two small children and Chick. Although Gatto told detectives following Chick’s death that she was not overwhelmed, Stokes said he believes she “seemed to have the telltale signs of a woman who was overwhelmed and not getting any help from Mr. Hood, or very little, or from her sons.”

“Most of us cannot understand: Why didn’t Ms. Gatto ask for help? Why didn’t she call the doctor? Why didn’t she call DHHS?” Stokes said. “Kendall would be alive had that happened.”

Stokes said he believes Gatto began to “lash out” at the child, and soon couldn’t ask for help for fear that the child’s injuries would be noticed.

“I think you didn’t intend this result,” he said. “On the other hand, what you did do was horrible.”

Following the verdict, Macomber said the sentence “sends a message” to parents and caregivers that they have a responsibility to the children in their care and that someone is noticing.

Macomber said the case had been “very traumatizing” to him, and that some first responders continue to receive counseling because of it.

Anita Sprague and Tanya Bailey, two former Wiscasset emergency medical technicians, were among those who responded to the Wiscasset home the night Chick died. The two attended Gatto’s trial and verdict, and were present during Tuesday’s sentencing.

Sprague said Stokes “did a great job” and lauded prosecutors for presenting “a fantastic case.”

“It just brings it all back,” Bailey said.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.

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