A Juneau Superior Court judge Thursday sentenced a Juneau father convicted of manslaughter to serve seven years in prison for causing the death of his 4-month-old baby.
Judge Philip Pallenberg imposed the sentence — 13 years with six years suspended — for David J. Paul. The judge also required Paul to be on probation for seven years after he is released from prison.
A jury convicted the 24-year-old father for causing the August 2010 death of Rian Jambi Orr following a four-week long trial this summer which featured sharply disputed medical testimony as to the cause of her death.
Prosecutors had argued Paul abused the infant to make her stop crying, possibly by giving her one shake and then failing to seek immediate medical treatment. But the defense vehemently fought the state’s ‘one shake’ theory and argued Shaken Baby Syndrome was an unproven invalid medical theory that could not have caused Orr’s fatal brain injuries.
The lack of evidence that Shaken Baby Syndrome caused Orr’s death prompted the judge to dismiss one of the more serious second-degree murder charges in the middle of trial. The jury then acquitted Paul of the another second-degree murder charge.
The jury did convict him on the remaining less serious felony charge of manslaughter, an offense defined in state statutes as “recklessly” causing the death of another person and is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Since Paul had no prior felonies, he was facing a presumptive sentencing range of seven to 11 years.
Pallenberg at sentencing found three aggravating factors which allowed the composite sentence to exceed that presumptive range. The aggravating factors related to the fact that the victim was particularly vulnerable due to her young age, domestic violence given that they lived in the same social family unit and because of Paul’s juvenile record.
The judge declined to find a fourth aggravator relating to the fact that Paul had five prior misdemeanor convictions. He also declined to find a mitigator that would have allowed Paul to serve a minimum of three and a half years, which is what Paul’s attorney Assistant Public Defender Eric Hedland requested. Assistant District Attorney Angie Kemp requested the full 20 years with 10 years suspended (10 years to serve), plus an additional 15 years of probation after his release.
Pallenberg noted while he will respect the jury’s verdict, much uncertainty still surrounds Orr’s death which prevents him from imposing a more severe prison sentence.
“The overarching question for sentencing is what did Mr. Paul actually do?” Pallenberg said, adding that there were no eyewitnesses and that the case was circumstantial.
He noted the state postulated some scenarios as to how Paul caused Orr’s death but ended up taking the position that it doesn’t need to specify exactly what Paul’s conduct was in to prove he recklessly caused her death.
“The state proved that whatever Mr. Paul did was reckless,” he said.
The judge also noted that he believed the testimony that Paul loved and cared for the baby and that there was no evidence that Paul intended to kill her.
Paul is not the child’s biological father; he raised her since birth with his live-in girlfriend who was the baby’s mother. The mother has since moved out of state and was not at the sentencing hearing.
Paul chose not to testify at trial, but he stood before the judge on Thursday in his yellow prison garb and declared his innocence.
“I didn’t do what I was accused of,” he said.
Paul stressed that not a day goes by where he doesn’t think of the baby, despite being described as “cold and heartless” by prosecutors, as he put it.
“That’s not the kind of person I am,” he insisted.
His lawyer Hedland said Paul is appealing the verdict.
Paul has been incarcerated since his July 2011 arrest and said he has received death threats in prison that forced him into solitary confinement for his own safety. He said after about 11 and a half months of that, he went back into the prison’s general population despite still receiving threats.
He will receive credit for time already served. With “good time” — the Department of Correction’s policy that for every two days in prison with good behavior, one day is knocked off the imposed sentence — he will probably be released in about two years and four months, Hedland said.
Two witnesses testified on Paul’s behalf to plead for leniency from the judge before he handed down the sentence: Paul’s former teacher at the Johnson Youth Center, Jo Dahl, and his grandmother, Barbara Bruce of Rainier, Wash.
Bruce said in an interview outside the courthouse that she still believes her grandson is innocent and that the baby died from a preexisting medical condition, probably brought on by poor nutrition, she said. She equated her son to being a scapegoat in light of the fact that a terrible thing happened.
“His baby died,” she said, “and somebody had to pay.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.