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Indianapolis Star, 13 June 2008
Court sides with mother in whipping case
Indiana justices overturn battery conviction in ruling woman was within her rights when she disciplined son
Star and news service report
The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that a Marion County mother who whipped her 11-year-old had the legal privilege to do so, overturning her battery conviction.
In its 4-1 ruling Tuesday, the court said that when Sophia Willis hit her son with a belt or extension cord, she caused bruises that were "neither serious nor permanent." The court said the punishment was reasonable.
The ruling comes two months after the state Court of Appeals ruled a Beech Grove teacher could not face charges of battery after she was accused of slapping an unruly student.
No states bar parents from spanking children. Indiana is among 21 states that allow corporal punishment in schools, according to the Columbus, Ohio-based Center for Effective Discipline. But many Indiana school districts prohibit it.
Henry C. Karlson, an Indiana University law professor, said Indiana law for more than a century has allowed corporal punishment at home and in schools, as long as the punishment is reasonable and not malicious. Since no permanent damage was caused to the child and the boy was struck in the areas where corporal punishment usually is inflicted, that probably met the "reasonable" standard, Karlson said.
"If you're going to allow corporal punishment, you've got to acknowledge that some bruising is going to take place," he said. "I can't say the court's opinion was wrong. I'd say the majority of Hoosiers believe in it."
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Frank Sullivan Jr. questioned whether overturning the conviction against Willis would result in more protection for abusers.
The February 2006 incident began when the boy took a bag of Willis' clothes to school and tried to give them to a classmate. A teacher caught him and contacted his mother.
Willis, a single mother, testified that grounding her son had failed the last time he was caught stealing. When he denied the new theft, she sent him to her sister's home for two days. She also decided to swat him with a belt.
"I thought about it over the entire weekend and I even tried to talk to him again," Willis said, according to the Supreme Court opinion. "And he continued to lie. . . . I didn't know what else to do."
According to court documents, Willis had her son remove his pants and then hit him five to seven times on the buttocks with an extension cord or belt, resulting in bruising. The boy showed the bruises to a school nurse, who contacted authorities. Willis was arrested and charged with a Class D felony.
Marion Superior Court Commissioner Danielle Gaughan found Willis guilty of battery after a bench trial -- but acknowledged the difficulty of the case.
"I know that you've been through a lot of things with your son," Gaughan told Willis during the sentencing hearing in September 2006.
Willis was convicted of battery and sentenced to one year in jail, with 357 days suspended.
The conviction previously was upheld by the state Court of Appeals.
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