Sheridan County residents convicted of felony child abuse

On January 15th, Michael A. Tibbets and Donna Gifford, two Sheridan County residents, were found guilty of felony child abuse by 12 jurors in the 4th Judicial District Court. They will be sentenced on March 24th, at 10:15 a.m..

Tibbets and Gifford have both been convicted of three counts of felony child abuse. Each count can represent up to five years of imprisonment and a $10,000 fine.

Understanding Child Abuse:

In Wyoming, a child abuse can be physical or mental.  If the child is abused by a parent, guardian or caretaker, the State may file a petition alleging child abuse in juvenile court, an information alleging criminal child abuse in adult court, or both.

Physical abuse of a child is defined as any physical harm to a child.  Mental abuse is defined as “injury to the psychological capacity or emotional stability of a child as evidenced by an observable or substantial impairment in his ability to function within a normal range of performance and behavior with due regard to his culture”

Juvenile court is generally considered to be a rehabilitative court.  When parents are brought before juvenile court on allegations of abuse or neglect, the goal of the court and the state is to reunify the family.  There are few punitive aspects to juvenile court.  However, if efforts to reunify the family are unsuccessful, the state may petition to terminate a parents rights to the child.

Adult court is primarily punitive. Persons who intentionally or recklessly inflict physical or mental abuse on a child may be charged criminally for their conduct, as Tibbets and Gifford were in this case.  The abuse alleged in this case took place between 2004 and 2012, and Tibbets and Gifford now face up to five years in prison for each conviction. (In 2015, the legislature amended the child abuse statute, increasing the maximum penalty from five years to ten.)

The decision regarding whether an abuser should be brought before  juvenile court, criminally indicted or both is at the sole discretion of the county attorney.

Trial Arguments

Tibbets and Gifford initially pleaded not guilty to the crimes; later, Gifford entered a not guilty plea, alleging mental illness or deficiency, asserting that at the time of the alleged abuse she lacked the capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct.

The trial began on January 8th and was concluded on January 12th. The 12 Sheridan County jurors took about 2 hours to find both of them guilty.

The evidence was overwhelming and heartbreaking. The changes exhibited by the children after being removed from the home was uncontroversial. The inevitable and undeniable truth is that the children suffered mental abuse at the hands of their parents.  What is perhaps less than clear is whether that abuse was intentional or reckless.  

What’s Next

Michael Tibbets and Donna Gifford will be sentenced in 4th Judicial District at March 24th at 10:15 a.m. They can each face up to a maximum of 5 years of imprisonment and a $10,000 fine or each count, for a total of 15 years and $30,000 in fines.

After sentencing, Tibbets and Gifford will have the right to appeal their convictions.   One of the questions certain to be asked is whether the evidence was sufficient to establish the abuse inflicted on the children by Tibbets and Gifford was intentional or reckless.  The jury believed it was, but the jurors heard the evidence first hand and experienced the extreme emotion of the situation. This may have clouded their ability to determine if the abuse was truly intentional or reckless.  The Wyoming Supreme Court will review the case in a more sterile environment, free from the emotions that naturally influence jurors and make them human. In that environment, will the evidence be as compelling?

 

Kenneth DeCock is a member of the Wyoming and Arizona State Bars.   He has practiced law in Wyoming for 15 years. He has served as both defense counsel and prosecuting attorney in numerous high profile criminal trials. Kenneth was named “Top 100 Criminal Trial Lawyer” by The National Trial Lawyers, Inc in 2015, and “Top 10 Criminal Attorney” for the State of Wyoming by the National Academy of Criminal Defense Attorneys in 2015.

Disclaimer:As of this date, 3/11/16, all information within this article is accurate and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Readers should not rely on this information as it is possible for laws to change.