Child abuse cases try prosecutors
On June 17, Mario Hernandez, 30, pled guilty in Edgartown District Court to five assault charges against two children, in what knowledgeable court observers agreed was a disturbing case of child abuse.
In a plea agreement, Associate Justice John M. Julian sentenced Mr. Hernandez to serve 11 months in the Barnstable County House of Correction, plus two years of probation (MV Times, June 18, "Hernandez guilty of abusing children").
Allegations of child abuse present complex legal issues for school officials, police, social service agencies, and the court.
In follow-up interviews with The Times, prosecutors, social workers, and school officials, while unwilling to discuss the specifics of this case, described the complexities they face when dealing with allegations of child abuse.
Representatives of the Cape and Islands District Attorney's office said that the public is not always aware of the factors that influence the ultimate disposition of a case.
The immediate safety of the children involved, the rights of defendants, and the possibility that a trial could take an unexpected turn all play a role and sometimes lead to a sentence that the public criticizes sharply.
In the Hernandez case, the prosecution's case rested heavily on the testimony of the two children involved. Cape and Islands Assistant District Attorney Laura Marshard made it clear in the courtroom that the reason she had agreed to accept a plea agreement was to spare the children the ordeal of testifying.
In outlining evidence she described as "sickening," Ms. Marshard said the Commonwealth would prove that Mr. Hernandez repeatedly hit the young children with a wire, a kitchen utensil, and a boxing glove. Mr. Hernandez, a native of El Salvador who is in this country legally, admitted to those facts in court, as part of his guilty plea.
Ms. Marshard asked Judge Julian to impose a total of 9.5 years in a House of Correction, with only one year to be served. She said that if the case had gone to trial and resulted in a conviction, she would have asked for the full 9.5 years to be served.
Many criminal cases that wind up in the court system are resolved through a complex negotiation that results in a plea agreement. Through the various hearings and procedures leading to a trial, the defense attorney and the prosecutor often make offers and counter offers. On the day of a trial, the judge often takes a strong hand in negotiating a plea agreement. By letting the attorneys know what sentence he could accept in a plea agreement and what sentence he could impose if the defendant is found guilty, the judge takes some of the leverage out of the hands of attorneys and the prosecution, and provides a strong incentive for both sides to conclude the case. According to experienced prosecutors, sometimes a judge will let it be known that if a defendant is found guilty at trial, a lengthy prison sentence is certain.