The bench trial of Shawna Gatto, 44, of Wiscasset, concluded Monday, April 8, with her defense lawyers trying to sow doubt about who may have killed 4-year-old Kendall Chick on Dec. 8, 2017.
Gatto was arrested on Dec. 10, 2017, and charged with depraved indifference murder – that Gatto’s actions showed a depraved indifference to the value of human life.
Early in the trial, the state presented evidence from EMTs and hospital staff, including graphic photographs of what both the state and defense acknowledge was significant child abuse. Also admitted were jailhouse phone calls and videos of Gatto’s multiple interviews with state police Detective Josh Birmingham, in which she offered contradictory testimony. Gatto was taped telling fiance Stephen Hood not to cooperate with the investigation.
According to testimony, Gatto repeatedly stated, to the EMT team, to the 9-1-1 dispatcher, and to the police, that Chick was “fine” shortly before the ambulance arrived. She said she didn’t know what had happened. The EMT team found evidence Chick had been bathed and blood was cleaned away shortly before they arrived. Her hair was still wet and she was naked on a towel in the bathroom; some dried and wet blood was still in her nose and in her ear.
Although death was pronounced nearly an hour later, the state contended, and the emergency room doctors concurred, that she may have been dead when she arrived at the hospital.
Wednesday morning, April 3, blood stain experts and lab analysts discussed their findings, mostly that of the blood stains at the home; most belonged to Chick, with only one stain, in the dining room wainscotting matching Hood’s DNA profile.
On Wednesday afternoon, Chick’s grandfather, Stephen Hood, took the stand. Justice William Stokes warned Hood his testimony could lead to charges, including child endangerment, but Hood said he would testify without an attorney.
Hood said he and Gatto had spoken during the trial and had spoken about the case. “She was upset by the pictures, and things that were said. I tried to console her.”
A phone call on Dec. 19, 2017, taped by Two Bridges Regional Jail, was entered into evidence and played in court. In it, Hood said, “We’re supposed to be Christmas shopping. I thought we were a happy family with happy children.” He pleaded with Gatto to tell him what had happened to Chick. “I want to know what killed my little girl,” he said. “I guess I’m going to have to wait until the trial to figure that out. I’m scared and worried for you, Shawna.”
He had been speaking to detectives, and they had informed him the case against Gatto was pretty solid, he said. “If there was any abuse going on in this house...”
“Is that what you think,” she responded. Gatto kept insisting she didn’t kill Chick, and didn’t know why Chick died.
“It looks like they have you dead to rights,” he said. “Something (expletive) happened. She bled internally. She was abused for months and months, they said. It’s textbook child abuse.”
She accused him of starting to question her. “I did nothing, Steve,” she said. “Nothing good can come from talking to the police.”
He testified that after he got home from work in the afternoon, he heard Gatto talking to Kendall in the bathroom, telling her she had to cooperate as she undressed her, but Gatto had motioned for him not to go in, saying she was in time out for messing her pants. He was inconsistent on whether or not he heard Kendall’s voice that day.
On the jail phone call, Gatto insisted Hood had heard Chick's voice. Assistant Attorney John Alsop said Hood wanted to think he heard her voice because he wanted to believe she was still alive at that point.
According to Hood’s testimony, he was never present when the more serious injuries occurred; had received information from Gatto afterward.
Although Hood said he had taken Chick to his substance abuse doctor, who examined her, the defense and state stipulated that neither Gatto’s nor Hood’s substance abuse physicians had actually seen the child.
Alsop asked Hood if he still loved Gatto. “Yes,” he said.
“You’re in kind of a tough spot, aren’t you, Steve?”
On Friday, Hood underwent cross examination by Jeremy Pratt and Philip Cohen. Asked if he had firsthand knowledge of how injuries occurred, Hood said no. He denied any knowledge of the blood spatter in the bedroom or anywhere else in the house. He said he asked Gatto to make the call to 9-1-1 while he performed CPR on Chick, but that Gatto refused. Hood made the call while Gatto called her mother, son, and texted her daughter-in-law at Mid Coast Hospital. “She said we can’t,” Hood said.
Cohen reinforced Hood’s early assertion that he had heard Kendall’s voice when she was in the tub. He asked if Gatto and her grandson were acting normally when Hood came in, and made the case that they wouldn’t be acting normally if something traumatic had happened. Hood, however, said while Gatto was acting normally, her normal behavior was “slightly perturbed” at the children. Cohen dropped that line of questioning and began to ask Hood about his criminal record.
Hood acknowledged he had several arrests and convictions for assault, dating from the early 1990s, with the latest one in 2004 for aggravated assault. The state objected, but was overruled.
Cohen asked about texts in which Hood asks Gatto to come home and deal with the children. He said most of his annoyance stemmed from Gatto going out and not coming back until late in the night, since the children were used to staying up late, even after Hood went to bed, and he was not able to go to sleep while they were up. “I wouldn’t take that out on the kids,” he said. “That’s not their fault.”
“You got used to no one checking on her,” Cohen said. “You didn’t want to take her to the doctor. You didn’t want to take her out in public. You were concerned about calling 9-1-1 when she was in trouble. And you were alone with Kendall, when Shawna wasn’t home, and you were aggravated with the kids.”
“No,” Hood said. “And I wasn’t alone with the kids very much, anyway.” He said Gatto’s son often took the kids so he could sleep, and that Gatto’s mother also came to give them a break quite often.
In the hallway outside the courtroom, Hood told the Wiscasset Newspaper, “That was brutal. I can’t believe they’re trying to pin this on me.”
On Monday, April 8, the defense presented its case. Most of it was trying to create doubt about whether Gatto or Hood had inflicted the injuries on Chick. A series of character witnesses, including Gatto’s former stepson, a former husband, a neighbor, her younger son’s former girlfriend, and her older son, testified Gatto was always kind to them, and they never witnessed her abusing children. Gatto elected not to testify.
In closing arguments, the state cited the medical, physical, timing, and family dynamic in maintaining Gatto likely inflicted the fatal injuries to Chick and most of the non-fatal ones, including a severe head injury. The state argued Hood had much to answer for, and could face trial, but that he was not present when Chick was injured. Alsop said Hood was in a submissive relationship relative to Gatto, loved her, and wanted to believe she could not have hurt Chick.
Cohen maintained Gatto must be found not guilty because the state did not have evidence that clearly stated only she had access to Chick and could have inflicted the injuries. He also pointed to differences in the timelines proposed by pathologists for the state and the defense, that put the time of the injury to the pancreas at one to 36 hours prior to her death.
Pratt submitted a second close, stating that if Stokes considered and discounted Cohen’s argument, he should consider a conviction of criminally negligent manslaughter based on State v. Crocker, who was convicted of depraved indifference murder in the death of his stepson, Timothy, after swinging his head into a wall. That conviction was upheld on appeal. Criminally negligent manslaughter requires only implied malice and a gross deviation from a normal duty of care.
Stokes said he will render a verdict in Augusta on April 30.