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Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 2000 / 5 Elul 5761

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

They killed a 3-year-old boy -- and they are free -- COLUMBUS, Ohio | The victim had been beaten so severely that his brain was bleeding. His assailants had also bitten him deeply on various parts of his body, leaving teeth marks in his flesh as clear as professional dental impressions. They had dragged him around by his ears, which were bruised and swollen. Then, after they were through hurting him, they hogtied him -- they bound his ankles together with tape, and tightly taped his wrists together behind his back, so that he could not move.

Then they left him to die.

He was 3 years old.

He weighed 34 pounds.

His name was Patrick Bourgeois Jr., known to his family as P.J.

The killers were his father, Patrick Bourgeois, and his father's girlfriend, Tracy Lynn Bratton.

They are walking around free this morning.

They were released from prison before they would have been eligible to appear before a parole board -- released by a judge who feels they have shown sufficient remorse for killing that little boy, and that they do not belong behind bars.

Because of the way the case progressed in the Franklin County courts, not a single witness was ever heard. Bourgeois and Bratton are out on the streets -- he in central Ohio, she in Pennsylvania -- without anyone ever testifying in a courtroom about what was done to that 3-year-old child.

The judge, in freeing the killers from prison (they had each pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter), said that what they did to the child was "fraught with ignorance, immaturity and inexperience, more than malevolence."

Because of the absence of sworn testimony in the case, the absence of direct- or cross-examination, it is unclear on what possible evidence the judge based her conclusion.

The child's death was a product of "immaturity and inexperience," and not of malevolence? Certainly that is how the killers wanted the judge -- Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Nodine Miller -- to regard what they had done: as a case of parenting gone inadvertently bad, as an example of misguided disciplining of a misbehaving boy.

Judge Miller could see Patrick Bourgeois standing in front of her, asking her for mercy; she could see Tracy Bratton standing in front of her, asking her for mercy. She granted their wishes.

There was a person who could not stand in the courtroom and ask for mercy: P.J. Bourgeois. He had been sentenced to death -- by his father and his father's girlfriend. His sentence had been carried out.

In order to attempt to understand a crime such as this one, and how such an apparent injustice as the release of the killers can take place, it is necessary to speak not of the failure of some vague "system," but to look as closely as possible at the specific details. What happened to this child -- how was it that the full story of his death was never told under oath? And why was there no objection in court to the freeing from prison of the man and woman who killed the child?

We have sought out, located and interviewed the people who know exactly what happened to that little boy. Their testimony was never heard in court -- but it paints an indelible and incontrovertible picture of P.J. Bourgeois' death, and what happened after.

In the days to come, you will hear from these people: the paramedics who went to the child's home and tried to save him; the medical personnel at Children's Hospital, where the child's battered and bleeding body was transported; the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on the child; the homicide detective whose job it was to find out what was done to the boy, and who had done it; the emergency medical services coordinator nurse who was on duty at Children's when P.J. was brought in. . . .

You will also hear from the judge herself; from the county prosecutor; from one of the killers; from the defense attorney for the other killer. We have spoken with all of them, in the hopes that by finding out how all of this happened, there is some lesson that will help prevent such a thing from happening again -- that will do some good, at long last, in preventing the further betrayal of other voiceless children.

Judge Miller may believe that what was done to P.J. Bourgeois was not a matter of "malevolence." It is difficult to comprehend upon what she bases her conclusion, other than the killers' own claims.

An emergency physician who has studied the autopsy reports disagrees: "The boy was tortured," he told us.

The emergency medical services nurse disagrees: "This was murder," she told us.

The paramedic who tried to save the child disagrees: "I know that he had been tortured," he told us.

The doctor who performed the autopsy disagrees: "It's a homicide," he told us.

"To let [the killers] out of prison is a crime in itself," the first person on the scene told us.

But to understand this, to search for some semblance of justice for the memory of that child, it is necessary to take it step by step. Generalizations don't explain anything; blaming "the system" is the same as blaming no one. In Monday's column, the story of what happened to P.J. Bourgeois -- the story that was never told in court -- begins, with the words of the Columbus Fire Department emergency worker who responded to a 911 call, and who found a 3-year-old.

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


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