This past Wednesday, November 26, a Hampden County jury found Jason Strickland, stepfather of Haleigh Poutre, guilt on five of six counts of child abuse and neglect. This case has become famous for several important reasons: First, Haleigh has tragically become an icon for child abuse and neglect by parents and caregivers within many homes in this state, and across the country as a whole. Secondly, the case has raised right-to-life issues: Haleigh’s multiple injuries were so severe that several doctors determined that she had suffered irreversible brain damage, was in a “persistent vegetative state”, and would never emerge from that state. Based on those medical diagnoses, the Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS – the state child protection agency,) waged a four-month legal battle to remove life-support from the girl. Shortly after the state won that battle, Haleigh emerged from unconsciousness, and began breathing on her own. Now 14 years old, she can speak simple sentences, and communicate with an alphabet board.
Third, this case exposed the incompetence and neglect practiced far too often by the Massachusetts Department of Social Services (DSS), the state’s child protection agency. Evidence in the case made clear that for five years, state officials failed to detect the abuse this child was suffering, and failed miserably in their charge to protect this tragic, and innocent, figure.
Strickland, who was married to Haleigh’s adoptive mother, Holli Strickland, was found to have not only abused Haleigh himself, but also to have recklessly permitted multiple instances of abuse to be perpetrated against Haleigh by Holli Strickland, who the jury apparently concluded was the chief abuser in this horrid story. Shortly after the Stricklands were arrested on charges of abusing Haleigh, Holli Strickland was killed in an apparent murder-suicide committed by her (Holli’s) grandmother, who raised her. The world became a better place when that day arrived.
Jason Strickland now faces a maximum of approximately thirty years in state prison, and he should serve every day of this sentence. Notwithstanding my status as a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, who believes strongly in the principle that every person charged with a crime is entitled to a zealous defense and a fair trial, I also firmly believe that people who have been found guilty of horrible crimes after a fair and just trial, ought to be punished accordingly. The crimes that Jason Strickland has been convicted of, are so horrendous as to stun the most hardened in the criminal justice system. Sentencing is set for December 11 by Superior Court judge Judd Carhart, and one can only hope he imposes the maximum allowable term(s) for these horrendous crimes.
But guilt here doesn’t – and shouldn’t – end with Jason and Holli Strickland. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, through its officials and personnel within the DSS, also bear enormous responsibility for what happened to this child. More on that aspect of this case, and what perhaps should be done about it, in my next post.