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Father sentenced to 15 years after abuse conviction

Becky Campbell • Updated Feb 22, 2017 at 7:49 AM

Washington County Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice said she had little choice but to sentence a man convicted of aggravated child abuse to 15 years in prison.

Joe Whitaker, 45, of Telford, wept as his wife, Charlotte Whitaker, testified at his sentencing hearing Tuesday about his relationship with his older son, her older daughter and the son they had together. Whitaker was convicted Jan. 24 after a four-day trial and six hours of jury deliberation.

Prosecutors said Whitaker was the cause of small fractures to the head of his son’s femur as well as a life-threatening left side brain bleed. Seven-month-old Jaden Whitaker, who has since been removed from his parents’ custody and adopted by another family, was rushed to the Johnson City Medical Center Aug. 15, 2013, after his father saw the baby having difficulty breathing and twisting his arm in an odd way.

Whitaker was the primary caregiver for young Jaden while his wife worked full time. He also cared for his son and step-daughter, both 9 years old at the time.

Four doctors who treated the baby testified at trial that he was near death initially, but they were able to get him stabilized and begin to look into what caused the injury. One physician testified it would have taken a significant fall for the baby to be injured. The only accidents reported by the parents were two falls the baby had when he rolled off a couch and fell off a bed. Doctors said those incidents could not have caused such a serious injury.

Doctors testified that the bleed was so large that it actually shifted Jaden’s brain slightly toward the right side.

The Whitakers continue to maintain Joe Whitaker’s innocence, and they are certain an unexplained medical condition caused their son’s brain to bleed. After the hearing, the Whitaker family said shaken baby syndrome has been debunked and that some cases in which the conviction was dependent on that diagnosis have been overturned.

Charlotte Whitaker testified that she, her husband and their three children had a good life, then when Jaden was injured that world fell apart. She said they had thought she wasn’t able to have more children, and getting pregnant with Jaden was a surprise.

“My husband used to be outgoing, happy-go-lucky,” she said. “Ever since this happened … they took Jaden from us. He’s been devastated,” she said as her voice cracked and tears flowed. “My husband is a good man and he’s an amazing father. I know there’s another explanation for what happened to Jaden. I need my husband and (Whitaker’s son) needs his father.”

Also during Charlotte Whitaker’s testimony, defense attorney David Robbins presented 16 letters written by friends and relatives on her husband’s behalf. Some contained information Rice said she would not consider because it was evidentiary in nature, but the parts that addressed Joe Whitaker’s social history were relevant to the sentencing hearing and she took those into consideration.

Joe Whitaker did not testify, but was allowed to make a statement called an allocution. It’s essentially a statement put into the record that isn’t subject to cross examination by prosecutors. He read a multi-page letter to Rice detailing his life in the Army, how his mother as a single parent raised him and his brother after their father died, how she taught him a work ethic that he used to succeed in the military and other jobs.

He asked Rice to consider his past in rendering her sentence.

But state law didn’t give Rice any wiggle room in terms of mitigation of his sentence. Aggravated child abuse is a felony that carries 15 to 25 years in prison. Because of Whitaker’s prior military service, his lack of a criminal history, his positive social history and other positive factors, Rice gave him the minimum sentence. Still, state law demands he serve 100 percent of the sentence. He will be eligible for up to a 15 percent reduction of the sentence by the Department of Correction.

In the meantime, Robbins will prepare a motion for a new trial that Rice will hear in May.

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