AUGUSTA — Defense attorneys for the Wiscasset woman charged with murdering a 4-year-old girl in December 2017 wrapped up a five-day trial Monday by suggesting the state had not proved her guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

Kendall Chick died with multiple injuries.

Shawna Gatto, 44, is charged with causing the death of Kendall Chick, granddaughter of Gatto’s fiancé, Stephen Hood. The girl had been living with the couple for nearly three years after being removed from her mother’s care.

“The events that bring us here today are horrific. Beyond words, actually,” said Gatto’s co-counsel, Philip Cohen. “It’s human nature … we all want to blame somebody. Blaming someone helps us accept it, it helps us move on.

“But human nature is in conflict with the principles of our justice system. We can only blame someone when we’re convinced of their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The evidence just isn’t there.”

The defense, in presenting its case Friday morning at the Capital Judicial Center, insisted that the state had not done enough to establish that Gatto caused the girl’s fatal injuries, and suggested that Hood could have been a suspect.

Chick died from blunt force trauma to the abdomen, which lacerated her pancreas and caused internal bleeding, but she suffered numerous other injuries, including head injuries, prior to that. Maine’s Chief Medical Examiner Mark Flomenbaum testified last week that the injuries were consistent with child abuse.

Assistant Attorney General John Alsop countered that there is no doubt that Gatto caused the girl’s injuries, which he described Monday as “outrageous, brutal and shocking.”

“The court needs to look no further than the photos taken of Chick at the time of her death,” he said. “That anyone could inflict such injuries on a defenseless child is beyond comprehension.”

Gatto’s jury-waived trial ended early Monday afternoon. Superior Court Justice William Stokes said he would render his verdict on April 30.

If convicted of depraved indifference murder, Gatto faces 25 years to life in prison. However, during closing arguments, her co-counsel Jeremy Pratt advised Stokes that if he does find her guilty, it should be of criminally negligent manslaughter, a lesser crime that carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison. The state opposed that suggestion.

Chick’s death in December 2017, followed shortly after by the death of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs, prompted investigations into Maine’s broken child-protection system. Some reforms have followed, and more are under consideration. But the trial shed little light on Chick’s interactions with the Department of Health and Human Services.

On Monday, the same day the trial ended, the DHHS announced increased efforts to prevent child deaths, including increasing awareness about safe infant sleeping environments and offering more assistance to parents struggling with substance use disorder.

Last week, the department reported that since the start of 2017, 22 children had died after the state had been notified of concerns about abuse or neglect involving their families. Four of the deaths were ruled homicides and 13 were accidental, including eight incidents of co-sleeping with a parent. In addition, at least eight of the children died with open abuse or neglect cases before the department.

Chick was born drug-affected to a mother who lost custody before the girl had her first birthday and to a father who was largely absent. Chick was placed with Hood, her paternal grandfather, and Gatto, who became her primary caretaker. During Gatto’s trial, Hood testified that DHHS only checked on the girl once after she was placed in their home.

It was also revealed at trial that both Gatto and Hood were frustrated with Chick and neither seemed to want her. A few days before her death, Hood sent a text message that read, “Call DHHS and see what they say. If they think she needs special care, fine. Take her.”

Prior to her death, Chick suffered multiple injuries, some of which appeared to be weeks or even months old. Gatto told police that the girl was a “drug baby” and was accident-prone. Hood said the same when he was called as a state witness, although he also acknowledged that he had wondered whether Gatto could have been abusing the girl.

During a lengthy phone conversation between Gatto and Hood a couple weeks after her arrest, Hood continually asked Gatto what happened. That conversation was played last week in court.

“Had I known about it, I sure as (expletive) would have put a stop to it. If there was any abuse going on in this house,” he said.

“Oh my god, is that what you think?” Gatto replied.

“I don’t know what to think,” he said.

By that point in the trial, the state already had painted Gatto as a woman frustrated by the circumstances of her life. In addition to Chick, she was caring for her adult son’s two children, one a 4-year-old, the other an infant.

Alsop, the prosecutor, said in his closing argument that it wasn’t just the physical injuries that proved Gatto’s guilt. There was blood spatter throughout the house that tested positive for Chick. There was a child head-size depression in a wall near her bed and one of her hairs was embedded in the drywall. He also pointed to inconsistencies in Gatto’s timeline of events as well as the fact that she couldn’t explain what happened.

Gatto declined to take the stand in her own defense, but several witnesses disputed the state’s characterization of her, including her former husband, her former stepson, a one-time neighbor and her own son. All testified Monday that they never saw Gatto physically discipline Chick and that she was loving toward the girl.

“She cared more about the kids than me. That was one of our problems,” said Donald Ricker, who was married to Gatto from 2002-08.

Ricker said Gatto never spanked or hit her two sons, or his two sons, who also lived with them.

“The most she did was raise her voice,” said Brian Ricker, Donald Ricker’s oldest son.

Late last week, while the state was making its case, Gatto’s attorneys offered Hood as an alternative suspect. Hood, who testified for the prosecution, acknowledged that he would get frustrated but said he only struck Chick once, with a belt, and felt terrible after.

Stephen Hood outside court in Augusta Wednesday. Press Herald photo by Eric Russell

Hood also testified that he believed the girl’s injuries were accidental.

One defense witness called Monday – Heather Berry – testified that Hood was more volatile than Gatto. Berry previously was in a relationship with Gatto’s son and they had a child together.

“She was always very kind to (Chick),” Berry said. “The most I ever saw was a timeout.”

Last week, Gatto’s attorney called an expert witness, Jack Daniel, to rebut Flomenbaum’s testimony. Daniel, a forensic pathologist from Virginia, agreed with the medical examiner that Chick was likely abused but he said he believed the fatal injury – the trauma to her abdomen – could have occurred longer before her death. That timing is significant because the defense has raised the possibility that Hood could have caused the injury and he was at work the day the girl died.

The defense also grilled Hood on the witness stand about his temper and his past, which includes assault convictions.

Cohen, Gatto’s co-counsel, said in his closing argument Monday that the state had not ruled out Hood as a suspect, which means it could not convict his client.

He also asked Justice Stokes to recall the portion of the interview between Gatto and lead state police Detective Joshua Birmingham, when she finds out via text message that Chick has died.

“The wailing, the distraught wailing,” Cohen said. “Now, either she’s the greatest actress in the world, or that was sincere.”

Gatto was quiet throughout the five-day trial. She wept at times, especially the first day when graphic photos were shown, and during some of Hood’s testimony. During closing arguments, her body was turned away from the attorneys who were speaking, her eyes apparently focused elsewhere.

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