The woman who was convicted of murdering four-year-old Kendall Chick is seeking a reduced sentence on the grounds that she didn’t fully understand her options going into her trial.
Shawna Gatto was found guilty of depraved indifference murder by Justice William Stokes following a jury waived trial in April 2019. Gatto was sentenced to 50 years in prison. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld her conviction last year.
But now Gatto is seeking to enter a no contest plea on the murder charge she initially pleaded not guilty to and to be resentenced through a post conviction review, according to her attorney Dylan Boyd.
Both a guilty plea and a no contest plea result in conviction. However, through a no contest plea, a person does not admit guilt, but concedes that a jury could find them guilty based on the evidence prosecutors would bring forth at trial.
Gatto testified during a hearing Tuesday, held via Zoom, that she did not understand the evidence or her plea options leading up to the 2019 trial, allegedly because her trial attorneys did not sufficiently communicate the information to her. Had she adequately understood her options or the strength of the state’s case, Gatto said she would have pleaded no contest rather than going forward with a trial.
Gatto was represented at trial by attorneys Jeremey Pratt and Phil Cohen, who were appointed to represent her by the court. Cohen died last year, so only Pratt testified at Tuesday’s hearing.
Gatto is now being represented by Boyd, who is also court-appointed.
Pratt said Tuesday that the concept of a no contest plea was discussed with Gatto. However, the conversation was essentially a “non-starter,” he said. Pratt said the strength of the state’s case was also discussed with her.
“She was adamant that she wanted a trial,” Pratt said during Tuesday’s hearing.
Gatto said she didn’t feel as though her trial attorneys talked to or met with her enough. She also said that she often felt uncomfortable talking with Cohen, which resulted in her feeling like she shouldn’t ask questions.
Cynthia D’Ambrosio, a private investigator who worked with the defense on the case, testified Tuesday that on one occasion prior to trial, Gatto told her she was unsatisfied with her attorneys. The investigator said Gatto told her she often shut down when talking to her attorneys.
Gatto said she felt more comfortable talking with D’Ambrosio. She said she wished D’Ambrosio was present during her meetings with her attorneys and at a settlement conference where a judge discussed his opinion on what the outcome of her trial would be. However, Gatto said she did not express this wish to her attorney.
Boyd and Assistant Attorney General Don Macomber must submit written arguments with the court before Justice Stokes can issue a ruling on the post conviction review. Boyd and Macomber have until early November to complete the submission process. It is unclear when Stokes will issue a ruling.
Boyd said that if Gatto is allowed to enter a no contest plea and is resentenced, she would likely receive a reduced sentence because a no contest plea is seen as accepting some level of responsibility.
Kendall Chick died from blunt force trauma to her head, a traumatic injury to her abdomen and chronic child abuse syndrome, medical experts said during Gatto’s trial.
At trial, Stokes described the abuse inflicted by Gatto as “outrageous, revolting, shocking and brutal,” and said “such conduct can only be described as torture.”
Gatto denied abusing Chick and told investigators the child was accident prone. During her trial, Gatto’s attorneys tried unsuccessfully to point to Chick’s grandfather — Gatto’s fiance Stephen Hood — as an alternative suspect.
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 died three months before 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy was killed, prompting 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.
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated when Marissa Kennedy died.