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Domestic - January 1998
Los Angeles Times, 30 January 1998
Dad Takes a Beating Over His 12-Year-Old's Spanking
By Dana Parsons
This may strike you as being about spanking a child, but it isn't. It's about the role of government in people's private lives, which only goes to the heart of what kind of county we want to live in.
The facts, in the main, aren't in dispute. What is, is the extent to which government -- in this case, the Orange County district attorney's office -- should intervene in family disciplinary matters that it considers to constitute child abuse.
Last June, Fullerton software engineer Tim Sharp spanked his 12-year-old son a number of times with a belt. Sharp says he wasn't counting exactly but that the discipline program he had previously outlined to his son provided that he would be hit three to five times for each lie. That night, Sharp says, he and his wife caught the boy in three lies and spanked him accordingly.
The next day, the boy told a Boys Club counselor about the spanking, and the counselor notified police. Police interviewed Sharp but didn't arrest him. Two weeks later, however, he was notified by mail that he faced two misdemeanor counts of child abuse.
This month, Sharp, 38, went to trial in Municipal Court in Fullerton. After hearing testimony for several days, the jury hung 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal. The foreman says he let deliberations stretch over parts of three days because he wanted very much to get a unanimous acquittal verdict, but the two holdouts wouldn't change their positions.
Here's what two jurors among the 10-member majority told me about the D.A.'s case:
"This case played on my mind a lot," said Phyllis Smith of Brea, a 44-year-old mother of three, the youngest of whom is 18. "I feel like the government has gone too far. I'm a government lover. I'm not down on government. But I feel like they're stepping in too far in parents' rights. I felt this was reasonable disciplining."
I asked, on a scale of 1 to 10, how serious the marks on the boy's buttocks looked to her. "Probably 3 to 4," she said. "If you spank someone, you expect there to be some sort of sting. There weren't 15 marks. When they were just talking about the marks, I had anticipated something ugly. When I saw the actual pictures [taken by police], I said, 'This is ridiculous.' They weren't even bruises, just some red marks."
Smith was so outraged that she chastised the prosecutor after the verdict. "I told her she should be ashamed of herself," Smith said.
Testimony convinced Smith that the boy, who had been living with his biological mother before moving in with Sharp and his wife nine months before the incident, had benefited from Sharp's parenting. Testimony indicated that the boy's grades had risen during the nine months he stayed with his father and stepmother, Smith said.
Jury foreman Miles Williams, the father of a 1-year-old, said other jurors weren't as outraged as Smith, but he added: "Probably the biggest reason for the 10 of us [favoring acquittal] was that it was very apparent from the evidence that Mr. Sharp had been a very good father. He had gone the extra mile with the child, over and above what most of us have seen that most parents do. His spanking was actually researched, as to its effectiveness and appropriateness."
Williams said the 10-juror majority saw the belt marks as "being very benign. . . . There were four to five marks from the belt that we could agree on. We certainly didn't see them as any sort of injury, in what we considered a legal sense." Williams described the investigation of Sharp as "really sloppy."
In deciding the case, the jury essentially had to debate whether the punishment was justifiable and/or excessive. Acknowledging that some threshold level of violence would have led him to vote "guilty," Williams said, "In this case, it was not even close to crossing that threshold."
Given that it misread a jury so badly, why did the district attorney's office prosecute the case?
Vickie Hix, the supervising deputy district attorney in the Fullerton office--but not the actual prosecutor in the case--unabashedly defended the decision to prosecute.
The district attorney's office intervened, she said, because the boy had attention deficit disorder and, as such, may respond differently to tasks his parents required of him.
"The reason we felt it was necessary to intervene," she said, "is that we hired an expert in, among other things, children with ADD, and the use of this type of corporal punishment isn't considered appropriate intervention to help an ADD child conform his behavior to what the parent was requesting.
"So you have a kid with ADD, and his parent is hitting him with a belt. In this case, that didn't appear to be the appropriate intervention. Our intention in pursuing the case was to try to get the father to consider alternative methods that didn't include beating his child with a belt."
Readers must keep in mind that it is not illegal to use a belt on a child. If I were a parent, I'm almost sure I wouldn't. But unless the spanking is excessive, it isn't illegal. I find myself asking why the district attorney's office, even backed by an expert, feels it should trump a father's judgment about proper disciplining--especially when I could find "experts" who would support spankings.
Hix said she was "not going to get into a philosophical debate" with me, but that is exactly what her office did in pursuing the case against Sharp. I asked why Sharp's punishment wasn't considered acceptable discipline, as the 10 jurors did.
"In this case, it sounds like it [the punishment] wasn't done for discipline," Hix said. "It was done for anger.'
I asked how she could possibly know that. "You smack him once, that's one thing," Hix said. "You count up to 15. When are you just pissed, and when are you disciplining a child?"
My answer to that would be the documented evidence as to the severity of the blows. Hix said the boy had "15 welts." Both jurors to whom I spoke disputed that.
Hix believes Sharp grew frustrated by his son's behavior, growing from his ADD condition. "We wanted to make sure that boy wasn't physically injured, because he's challenged [by ADD]," she said. "Somebody has to protect the child. It doesn't sound like the father would."
Keep in mind she is saying that this week, two weeks after the jury all but said prosecutors completely misread the situation.
"I think we did the right thing," Hix said. "We would do it again. We weren't after a conviction. Our goal was to get him to acknowledge that a different form of intervention was more appropriate. Before he hits him with a belt again, he'll think twice."
I'm tempted to use the word "extortion," but if that isn't the Orange County D.A.'s office supplanting its parenting ideas for Sharp's, I don't know what else to call it.
I spoke to Tim Sharp at some length this week but, rather than quote him at length, decided to let the two jurors in the majority address the case. Sharp did point out, however, that his legal defense cost him $10,000. Outraged that he had even been charged, he refused a D.A.'s offer to plead guilty, accept probation and attend anger-management classes.
Sharp's son is now back with his mother, a result of the charges filed against the father.
Still jarred by the experience, Sharp said this week, "I'm trying to find out whether I have any basis for suing these guys. And if I can, I will."
Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
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