AUGUSTA — “She was fine 10 minutes ago.”

Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber repeated the sentence as each photo was displayed on a screen in the courtroom at the Capital Judicial Center on Monday.

The photos showed 4-year-old Kendall Chick on an autopsy table, pale and covered in bruises.

This is how the murder trial of Shawna Gatto began.

“As you can see, your honor, little Kendall Chick was not fine,” the prosecutor said.

Chick died on Dec. 8, 2017. Gatto was arrested days later and has been in jail since. She waived a jury trial last year, which means the verdict will be reached by Superior Court Justice William Stokes. The trial is expected to last through this week and perhaps into next week.

On Monday, Gatto, 44, wore a charcoal sweater and black pants, and her face was partially hidden behind her long dark hair. She listened as Macomber alleged, in painstaking detail, that she was the one who caused the child’s fatal injuries. Each time a photo was displayed on a large screen at the front of the courtroom, it also appeared on a computer monitor directly in front of her.

Kendall Chick 4, died of blunt force trauma.

And each was accompanied by Macomber’s refrain of “she was fine 10 minutes ago,” a reference to what Gatto told police and others over and over again while trying to explain what happened.

Macomber cast Gatto as a woman who was overwhelmed by the circumstances of her life. She had raised two boys of her own and was looking forward to spending time with her fiancé, Stephen Hood. Then one of her sons had a child and she became a full-time baby sitter. Then Chick, the daughter of Hood’s son, was placed with them because both of her parents struggled with substance use disorder. Finally, Gatto’s son had another child.

“She went from an empty-nester to caring for two toddlers and an infant, “all day, every day, by herself” the prosecutor said.

“She said she didn’t have any ‘me time,’” Macomber said, adding that Gatto would often call her mother to “let off steam” about how challenging the children were. “On Dec. 8, they talked for two hours.”

Macomber said the autopsy, conducted by State Medical Examiner Mark Flomenbaum, showed at least 15 distinct injuries that were consistent with acute child abuse. Flomenbaum said Chick died from blunt force trauma to the abdomen, which lacerated her pancreas, but she had head trauma as well, including a bruise that had forced one eye swollen shut.

In addition to the widespread injuries, Macomber said detectives found bloodstains in the girl’s bedroom and a “defect” in the wall that had both blood and one of her hairs embedded. He said Gatto and Hood didn’t take the girl out in public often because of the bruises.

Gatto’s defense attorney, Jeremy Pratt, opted to postpone his opening statement until the state finishes its case. He only spoke during brief cross-examination of the state’s witnesses.

However, he previously said that he will argue Chick died from accidental injuries – that she was born drug-affected and was developmentally delayed and clumsy.

Her death, followed three months later by the death of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs, put a spotlight on Maine’s broken child protective system. Several reforms have been undertaken since and more are being debated in the current legislature.

Following Macomber’s opening statement, prosecutors played the audio of a 911 call Hood made after Chick had fallen unconscious. Both he and Gatto could be heard on the audio and both were distraught. At one point, he said, “We’re losing her.” The dispatcher instructed the two how to perform CPR on the girl. Gatto again could be heard saying, “She was fine.”

Superior Court Justice William Stokes listens to Assistant Attorney General Donald Macomber’s opening statement Monday. The prosecutor portrayed the defendant, Shawna Gatto, as overwhelmed by caring for three young children by herself. Staff photo by Derek Davis

The state next called three witnesses, all emergency medical personnel who had responded to the 911 call to Hood and Gatto’s home in Wiscasset. Each testified about arriving at the home and seeing the girl with gruesome injuries. Each said she was covered in bruises, some fresh and some that appeared old, and that she was cold and lifeless.

One of the witnesses, Anita Sprague, said the feeling inside the house was unusual when she arrived.

“Nobody was hysterical,” she said.

The state then called Dr. Eric Sampson, who was the attending emergency room physician on Dec. 8, 2017, when Chick was brought by ambulance to Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick. He testified that when the child arrived, her heart wasn’t beating, but they tried for more than a half hour to revive her. At one point, doctors were preparing to transfer Chick by LifeFlight helicopter to a Portland hospital but that didn’t happen. She was declared dead.

Shawna Gatto speaks with her attorney Jeremy Pratt on Monday, the first day of her murder trial in the death of 4-year-old Kendall Chick. Pratt decided to postpone his opening statement until the state finishes its case. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Asked by Macomber to assess the girl’s injuries, Sampson said that the “bruising on her head appeared older and … was unlikely to represent as accidental.”

Gatto has been charged with depraved indifference murder, a classification that means even if she didn’t intend to cause the death, she acted without regard for the child’s welfare. If Gatto is not convicted of murder, she could be found guilty of a lesser crime, such as manslaughter.

During the doctor’s testimony, several more graphic images of the girl’s injuries were projected onto a screen in the courtroom.

After opening statements and witness testimony dominated the morning, much of Monday afternoon was spent watching nearly two hours of an interview between Gatto and Maine State Police Detective Joshua Birmingham. The conversation took place at the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office in Wiscasset a couple of hours after Chick died.

Birmingham asked Gatto several questions about her relationship with the girl and about any prior injuries. Gatto said she fell down “constantly and often didn’t put her hands out to brace the fall.”

“I can’t say it was every day, but pretty close,” Gatto said in the interview.  “What do you do? You just deal with it.”

Gatto, who was crying and sniffling throughout most of the interview, broke down at one point.

“I never thought this was going to happen,” she said. “She was fine. I don’t know what happened. You tell me what (expletive) happened.”

The detective told her several times that she was not under arrest and that she was free to go but they continued talking. The more she spoke, the more it was evident that her life was hectic.

At one point after a brief silence, Birmingham asked her, “What do you do for you?”

“Nothing,” she replied.

“What does anyone else do for you?” he asked.

“Nothing.”

She started crying again.

“I don’t have any me time,” she said. “I just invest it in my kids and grandkids. It’s all I have.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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