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Jewish World Review August 29, 2001 / 10 Elul, 5761

Bob Greene

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The rights of the torturers are safeguarded -- IF the children in central Nebraska about whom we have been reporting--the children allegedly tortured in Hall County--are depending on the courts to vigorously protect them, it's probably best if they don't hear about a decision handed down by the Nebraska Supreme earlier this month.

Even as we were reporting about the cases of the Henry and Burkhardt children, Nebraska's highest court issued a ruling in another case that provides a vivid lesson on how fiercely the rights of people who torment children are protected in this country -- and how the children's voices often go all but unheard.

Our reports have dealt with the cases of Jamie G. Henry, who has pleaded no contest to charges of using an electrified cattle prod to discipline his 8-year-old stepson and his 5-year-old daughter, and of Robert G. Burkhardt Jr., who, police say, bound his girlfriend's 6-year-old son by the ankles; the child, police say, was burned on his back with lighted cigarettes. As we reported Tuesday, there is a chance that the children in these cases -- three Henry children, three Burkhardt children -- may eventually be sent back into the homes where the alleged torture took place. That will be up to Nebraska county courts.

Earlier this month, the Nebraska Supreme Court overturned the manslaughter and child-abuse-resulting-in-death convictions of a man found guilty of burning and then beating to death his girlfriend's 15-month-old son.

The man -- Harold J. Trotter, 39 -- was convicted of the Thanksgiving weekend, 1996, killing of Christopher Churchill, the son of Tammy Churchill. According to testimony before a jury in Otoe County, Trotter held the boy's face against the metal grate of a wall-mounted heater that could reach temperatures of 180 degrees. A forensic pathologist testified that the burns on the little boy's face, and on his forearms, indicated he had been forced against the heater; the pathologist testified that the burns on the child's arms indicated he had struggled to push himself away from the heater.

The boy died later, according to testimony, from brain injuries suffered when his head was slammed against a hard surface.

Trotter was sent to prison for the boy's death; his girlfriend also was sent to prison on charges relating to her failure to seek medical attention for the boy's severe burns.

But the Nebraska Supreme Court threw out Trotter's manslaughter and abuse-resulting-in-death convictions, and ordered a new trial (the court let stand one less serious child abuse conviction). The court said that the trial judge -- Otoe County District Judge Randall Rehmeier -- had made a mistake.

The mistake, the state Supreme Court ruled, was that Judge Rehmeier had allowed the jury to hear testimony from two of Harold Trotter's former wives. The former wives had testified that Trotter had punished them violently during their marriages.

The prosecution had included their testimony to demonstrate Trotter's propensity for violent punishment of people living under his roof. But the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that, while the testimony may have shown that Trotter had a tendency toward this kind of punishment, it did not speak to his intent to punish in this way. Thus, they tossed out the convictions.

This is not to denigrate the seriousness with which the justices approach their work. Apparently they believe that, without the testimony from the former wives, the jury might have considered whether someone else -- Tammy Churchill -- had delivered the fatal blows. There was no question that Trotter was the person who forced the child's face against the hot grating.

Once again, every conceivable right of the adults in a child-torture case is impeccably looked after by the legal system. If only the children, whose cries are not answered, could have the comfort of knowing that there is someone to look after their rights with the zealousness afforded to the people who torment them.

Christopher Churchill is dead, so he has no way of knowing what his state's Supreme Court ruled in the case of the man who burned him before he died. If the child had survived, he might have found himself in the position of some day being sent right back into the house where it happened.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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