Brandon Wallis just wanted to see his children again.
For months since he was charged with first-degree child cruelty, he has been allowed to spend only a few hours with his 11-year-old son and allowed no time at all with his daughter, who turned 7 Thursday.
After a week-long trial, a Muscogee County jury of nine women and three men found him not guilty Monday of the child cruelty charge. Wallis wept and embraced defense attorneys Mark Shelnutt and William Kendrick after the verdict.
Outside the courtroom, he said he most wanted to hug his daughter again.
“I just want to see my kids. I just want to be back with them ... to hold my baby girl," he said.
He was accused of whipping the girl with a belt so forcefully on Sept. 10, 2012, that he left extensive bruises on her legs and buttocks.
His defense attorneys claimed the girl bruised easily because she suffers from hypothyroidism. They also said she sustained the bruises while playing on a rocky slope at Britt David Park, before she was spanked.
After the verdict, Wallis outside the courtroom said that he’d never before used a belt on the girl, and never would again. “But the bruises came from more than just the belt,” he added. “They came from being on the hill the day before.”
During the trial, the jury repeatedly saw photographs of the girl’s bruises. Prosecutor LaRae Moore showed them again during her closing argument Monday morning, telling jurors, “The question is, is it shocking for you to see that. Pictures don’t lie.”
The photographs were a shock to Wallis, too, Shelnutt said afterward: “He was as surprised as anybody when those pictures were shown.”
Moore later Monday said she was “shocked and disappointed” by the verdict delivered after about an hour and 10 minutes of deliberations. “I thought this was a good, solid case,” she said.
During Monday’s closing arguments, attorneys focused on elements of the crime as set by Georgia law.
Defense attorney William Kendrick recited the basic facts: On the evening of Sept. 10, 2012, the first-grader came home from Midland Academy with a teacher’s “red note” signifying misconduct during class; her father made her stand in the corner as punishment; and she came out of the corner three times, so he spanked her.
The next day at school, teachers asked about marks on her legs, and she told them she was spanked. “And that’s it,” Kendrick said.
To prove Wallis was guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” prosecutors had to prove each element of the crime, Kendrick said.
The Georgia law on first-degree child cruelty states: “Any person commits the offense of cruelty to children in the first degree when such person maliciously causes a child under the age of 18 cruel or excessive physical or mental pain.”
Wallis did not spank his daughter with any “malicious” intent, Kendrick argued: His intent was to use corporal punishment to correct his child’s behavior, which the law allows.
The spanking did not cause the girl excessive physical pain because she showed no sign of discomfort the next day, he said: She had no problem sitting down; she was cheerful; and she didn’t mention the spanking until she was asked about her legs. She even rode a mechanical bull three days later at a rodeo, he said.
Though the pediatrician who examined the girl said her bruises were the worst from a spanking that he’d ever seen, he prescribed only Tylenol for treatment, Kendrick said.
The defense attorney noted the girl’s hypothyroidism, a circumstance the defense repeatedly emphasized. The girl could have sustained her bruises playing on a hill at Britt David Park before she was spanked, Kendrick said.
Assistant District Attorney LaRae Moore’s closing followed Kendrick’s. She noted Wallis was using an “affirmative defense,” admitting to the conduct charged, but claiming mitigating circumstances and justifying his actions as proper parental discipline.
Jurors were not to decide whether the father had a reason to punish the girl, but whether the punishment he chose was reasonable, Moore said. They had to weigh the child’s age, the means and force of her spanking and the harm likely to result.
The duration of the child’s pain was not a factor under the law, she said: “There’s no requirement we prove she couldn’t sit down.”
Moore noted also that two months before the case came to trial, Wallis visited the pediatrician who had examined his daughter, bringing articles about hypothyroidism and asking whether that caused the girl’s bruising. The pediatrician testified that Wallis seemed to be “reaching” for explanations.
“The bottom line is this is nothing but an attempt to manufacture a defense,” Moore said.
She maintained Wallis was angry and “out of control” when he whipped the girl. “Remember how tiny she is,” Moore said. “It doesn’t take much to hurt her.”
The case was not a question of whether parents can use corporal punishment to correct a child, but whether the beating the girl got was reasonable under the circumstances, she said: Parents may not legally punish kids to the point of injury.Said Moore: “There is a clear line that has to be drawn. What is acceptable? What is reasonable?”
Now that the little girl can see her father again, they have a lot of catching up to do, Wallis said, as he missed more than her birthday.
Asked what he’ll do first, he said: “Hold her, and celebrate her birthday, and Christmas, and Valentine’s Day, and New Year’s, and Halloween. I never missed any holidays until this started.”
Shelnutt said Wallis has additional steps to take to restore full visitation with his daughter and her older brother. But Monday’s not guilty verdict has set the stage for that resolution: “Obviously there are some other things that have to be resolved, but this was this big step, to get us on the right road.”
Asked how soon Wallis might see his daughter again, Shelnutt said, “We’re not sure, but we’re going to find that out.”