The assault on a St. Martin special education student could have resulted in a felony indictment if a grand jury had the option to do so, a Mississippi criminal law professor said.
“It is a potential felony because she (the student) is a vulnerable person,” said Matt Steffey, professor at the Mississippi College of Law. “And a case doesn't have to be perfect to get a felony charge. People indeed are thrown into prison for doing much less.”
But whether prosecutors gave a grand jury the option to indict on a felony charge is not known because grand jury proceedings are secret.
“Only the district attorney or the grand jury knows that,” Steffey said.
Even so, Steffey said, it could still be difficult to prove a felony offense. Prosecutors would have to prove to a jury that those involved set out to intentionally injure the child and their acts did, in fact, result in physical injuries.
“Because this is a case that happened three or four years ago and you have a child who cannot communicate, it would difficult but not impossible to prove,” he said. “One could reasonably assume that putting a towel in your mouth could cause physical pain.”
State Rep. Carolyn Crawford is among hundreds of parents in Mississippi and beyond who are outraged over the misdemeanor charges filed in the case involving former St. Martin Middle special education teacher, Kerri Anne Nettles, and former bus driver, Antioinette Jane Raymond.
In published school bus video of incidents in 2014 and 2015, both the teacher and bus driver yell at the child. Nettles stuffs a towel into the child's mouth for three minutes on two occasions. Raymond threatens to take the girl to jail, choke her or even kill if she doesn't stop talking. She also sits on top of the girl.
Crawford reached out to her own attorney to find what laws were needed to make the assault a felony. But she learned the state already had a felony vulnerable person law that could have applied.
“So if we already have the laws on the books, why didn't that apply in this case?” Crawford said. “We need to know why that didn't happen.”
The St. Martin girl's legal guardians didn't know what happened for some time, until officials called them to the school. The incidents were only discovered because school officials were reviewing the bus video for an unrelated incident.
According to the girl's legal guardian, Thomas Pearce, the family suspected something was wrong when the girl started having nightmares, anxiety and started to cry every time the school bus showed up to take her to school.
But they didn't know to document any physical injuries, because they didn't know about the incidents.
In order to the prove the felony charge for abuse of the child, Steffey said, prosecutors would have to rely on evidence of physical abuse and testimony, something that wasn't an option because the girl's disability prevents her from communicating.
“Now, you could certainly show the jury the video and it is certainly humiliating. One could reasonably assume that putting a rag in your mouth could cause physical pain,” Steffey said. “But what you have here is a child who cannot communicate the extent to which it was painful for her, and you have no record of any physical injuries.”
The Sun Herald reached out to District Attorney Tony Lawrence to explain why only misdemeanor charges applied in the case.
In response, Lawrence said, the grand jury reviewed video footage of the incidents and considered its options under the law before indicting the teacher and bus driver on misdemeanor offenses.
However, Lawrence did not say whether the grand jury was given the option to indict either employee on a felony offense.
Grand jury proceedings are secret and prosecutors, though they present the evidence in the case and the laws to consider, do no sit in on jury deliberations.
According to state law, child abuse is a felony if the child is intentionally burned, tortured, strangled, choked or smothered, poisoned, starved or injured with a weapon even if the there is no permanent injury.”
The felony child abuse law applies, however, only if the child suffers serious injuries, such as broken bones and scarring.