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Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016 12:05 am

Punishment reduced in plea

Seven years cut from sentence

Mark Willett
A Springfield man whose conviction for battery to his infant daughter was overturned by an appellate court has pleaded guilty to the offense in a plea bargain that will shave seven years from a 16-year sentence meted out by a judge.

Mark Willett, 28, told police that he had gently shaken his two-month-old daughter girl to wake her and to stop her from crying, but he intended no harm. The girl experienced developmental delays and a seizure disorder in 2012 after suffering a brain injury while in her father’s care, according to court documents.

Willett’s 2013 conviction for aggravated battery to a child was thrown out in August by the Fourth District Appellate Court, which found that Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Pete Cavanagh erred when he barred the defense from telling jurors that Willett had to know that shaking the girl would likely cause serious injury in order for him to be guilty of aggravated battery. Instead, the judge allowed prosecutor Matt Maurer, who is now a Sangamon County associate judge, to tell the jury that the prosecution only had to show that Willett knowingly shook the child.

The court in its ruling wrote that it is a “well-settled rule” that defendants, in order to be found guilty, must know that their conduct could result in serious consequences. The appellate court praised public defender Lindsay Evans, who was warned by the trial judge not to object if the prosecutor during closing arguments told jurors that Willett could be found guilty even if he didn’t know that his actions could cause injury.

“(W)e commend defendant’s trial counsel, Lindsay Evans, for her work in this case,” the appellate court wrote. “Both the defendant and the trial court were well-served by her efforts.”

Evans declined comment.

Pursuant to a deal with the Sangamon County state’s attorney’s office, Willett last month pleaded guilty and received a nine-year sentence. He had previously been serving a 16-year sentence handed down by Cavanagh. With time off for good behavior, Willett could be released in four years.

In addition to ruling that the trial judge erred in not allowing jurors to hear that Willett had to know that his actions were likely to cause harm, the appellate court also ruled that the jury should have been allowed to consider a verdict of reckless conduct, which carries a less severe punishment than aggravated battery to a child.

The appellate court also found that doctors who testified as medical experts were wrongly allowed to state that Willett’s daughter had been abused. The girl suffered bleeding and bruising in her brain, according to court documents. Physicians who testified as experts could say whether injuries were accidental, the appellate court determined, but they could not say whether abuse had occurred because they weren’t experts in parenting, criminal investigations or criminal psychology. The appellate court noted that the girl was born two weeks prematurely and so was susceptible to brain injury caused by an underdeveloped vascular system.

Sangamon County state’s attorney John Milhiser could not be reached for comment.

The child, identified as M.W. in court records, was taken to St. John’s Hospital after she became unresponsive and had breathing problems. Doctors found bruises around her armpits, shoulders and jaw that the girl’s maternal grandmother said weren’t present when the infant was left with Willett six hours previously.

Willett told police that he “might” have set the girl down hard in a swing.

“I was frustrated,” Willett told detectives, according to court documents. “I had been sick, stressed out, just wanting her to stop crying. … I don’t ever want to hurt my daughter, you know, that’s something a father never wants to do, I think.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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