Tacoma man sentenced to 16 years for inflicting brain damage on his infant son

Staff writerFebruary 14, 2014 

A 19-year-old Tacoma man who shook his 7-day-old son so violently last year the boy suffered permanent brain damage was sentenced Friday to 16 years, 8 months in prison.

The sentence Superior Court Judge John Hickman handed down to Joshua Sullivan was less than the 20 years requested by prosecutors, but it was more than the 10 years called for at the high end of the standard sentencing range for a conviction of first-degree child assault.

Sullivan pleaded guilty to that charge late last month, admitting he acted recklessly during the early-morning hours of May 23 when he shook the infant, who was fussy and wouldn't take a bottle.

Sullivan also admitted he abused his position of trust in injuring his son, who's named for his father, and that the baby was particularly vulnerable.

Those admissions gave deputy prosecutor Angelica Williams grounds to ask for a sentence above the standard range.

Williams did so during a grueling hearing that became so emotional for onlookers and court staff, including Hickman, that at one point a recess was called for people to regain their composure.

Williams said Sullivan violated a sacred trust when he shook the boy.

"He could have put the baby down. He could have woken up the mother," she said. "He could have done any number of things other than violently assaulting that baby, but he didn't."

Williams went on to say Sullivan then lied to emergency-room personnel about how his son sustained his injuries.

Doctors were forced to cut away a large portion of the child's skull to relieve the pressure and swelling, the deputy prosecutor said. They have yet to reconstruct his skull, and his prognosis for a full recovery is not good, she added.

"He will have issues for the rest of his life," Williams said.

Carol Wood is a state-licensed foster parent currently caring for the boy, now 9 months old.

Wood told Hickman the boy requires round-the-clock care and has been to the doctor scores of times since he was put into her custody.

Still, she said, he is a happy baby who smiles often. The boy cooed in her arms as she delivered her testimony about his various medical problems. He still could die, Wood added.

"We love him," she said.

Hickman was clearly moved by her testimony and said, "I don't know what to say," when she'd finished.

He then left the bench and a recess was called.

When the judge returned to court a few minutes later, defense attorney Edward DeCosta spoke on behalf of Sullivan.

He said his client grew up in a dysfunctional family and was wholly unprepared to care for a newborn.

"He was in way over his head," DeCosta said. "He's very sorry, and he damn well should be."

But, the defense attorney said, Sullivan did not intentionally injure his son. He acted recklessly but not maliciously, the attorney said. DeCosta then asked for something less than 20 years.

Sullivan then read from remarks he prepared in jail.

He said he is very sorry for what he did to his son and hopes one day to gain his forgiveness.

"I can't do anything but try to become a better person," Sullivan said. "I'm not an animal, I'm just a father who made a big mistake."

Hickman then had his say.

The judge said what happened to the boy was heart-breaking.

"It pulls on the heartstrings," Hickman said. "You can't be human if it doesn't pull on your heartstrings."

Sullivan's childhood also was sad, the judge said.

"I'm not surprised that dysfunctionality passes from one generation to another," Hickman said. "And in a way he is a victim of another dysfunctional family that he's now passed on to his son, unfortunately."

But, the judge said, many people who come from difficult backgrounds work to overcome them, become productive members of society - "even president of the United States" - and certainly do not assault their infant children.

"That should be a source of inspiration to you and not an excuse for you to have exercised the type of behavior you did on this poor infant child," Hickman said. "I believe 200 months to be a fair and reasonable sentence."

Corrections officers then herded Sullivan off to jail while Wood bundled his now-sleeping namesake into a stroller and headed toward the exits.





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