Amicus lector
Questions and answers about child abuse and Adrian Peterson’s son

The death of a toddler from suspected child abuse in Sioux Falls has become a national story thanks to the boy’s connection to NFL MVP Adrian Peterson.

Last week, the running back’s father confirmed that the 2-year-old victim, Tyrese Robert Ruffin, was Peterson’s son.

Peterson’s involvement aside, however, this is a case of child abuse that has a lot in common with countless others.

Joey Patterson, the 27-year-old with whom the Ruffin and his mother were living,has been charged with aggravated assault and aggravated assault on an infant.

The second charge is commonly known as the “shaken baby” law, as it involves causing brain hemorrhages in a young child by shaking, blows or hitting the child’s head against something.

Patterson will face more charges soon

I’ve covered a handful of “shaken baby” cases in Sioux Falls since 2009, and looking to those can give us some insight into this one. Here are answers to some of the questions you might have about how South Dakota will seek justice in the Ruffin case.

1. What could Patterson be charged with, and what kind of punishment would he face?

Patterson is sitting in jail on the assault charges, so Lincoln County State’s Attorney Tom Wollman is in no hurry to charge him for the homicide. He’ll review Patterson’s interviews with police, look at the results from the boy’s autopsy and weigh his options then take the case to a grand jury.

In South Dakota, there are five basic ways to charge a homicide: first- or second-degree murder, first- or second-degree manslaughter or vehicular homicide. Vehicular homicide involves impaired driving, so that’s out.

First-degree murder involves premeditated killing. Second-degree murder doesn’t require premeditation, but involves an “imminently dangerous” act by a depraved mind with a disregard for human life.

First-degree murder is punishable by death or life in prison without parole. Second-degree murder is life without parole.

First-degree manslaughter involves conduct that was “not designed to effect the death” of another person. The death can come through the commission of another felony (aggravated assault, for example), through the use of a dangerous weapon or through cruel and unusual actions undertaken in the heat of passion.

Second-degree manslaughter is reckless killing that doesn’t meet the standards set for murder or first-degree manslaughter.

First-degree manslaughter is punishable by up to life in prison. Second-degree manslaughter carries up to 10 years.

A jury convicted Christopher Brian Fisher of first-degree manslaughter in 2010. Fisher was accused of killing his girlfriend’s child, Preston Vensand, on Thanksgiving Day 2009, and he’s currently serving a 60-year sentence. Like Patterson, he initially told police he hadn’t hurt the boy. He confessed after doctors determined the boy’s injuries weren’t accidental and police pressed him about what he’d done to the child.

 2. Will Patterson be eligible for the death penalty?

Highly unlikely. The bar for the death penalty is incredibly high. To get a death sentence, prosecutors must prove at least one of 10 aggravating factors to a separate jury after a person is convicted of first-degree murder. You can take a look here.

Unless Patterson confessed to doing something nearly unspeakable to Ruffin (beyond beating the child, in other words), I don’t see him joining this group.

Prosecutors have to announce their intention to seek the death penalty before doing so.No shaken or abused child case in recent years has gone that way, though.

3. Could Patterson walk free?

Yes. This does happen. A man named Dustin Two Bulls was charged with murder and manslaughter in the 2010 beating death of Deryun Wilson, his wife’s son. Two Bulls was the last person to see the child alive, and all the evidence pointed to him.

However, as the case progressed, things got complicated. Wilson had signs of abuse beyond brain hemorrhaging. He’d also been in the care of several people in the hours and days leading up to his death. Medical testimony opened up the possibility that he could have sustained his fatal head injuries more than a day before he collapsed on the floor. He slept in until noon on the day he died, and Two Bulls wasn’t watching him the night before.

The Two Bulls case never went to trial. No one has been punished for the Wilson homicide.

Fisher’s case nearly ran into snags based on the way police gleaned a confession. At his trial, defense lawyers said Fisher only confessed to shaking Vensand and striking his head because he’d been up for more than a day and was broken down after hours of intense interrogation.

Without his confession, there would have been little proof.

Another man, Utkarsh Vijayvergia, was charged with aggravated assault on an infant in 2009. He argued that the police had twisted his explanation for the baby’s injuries. His case also was dropped.  

This illustrates a frequent issue prosecutors face: If there are no witnesses, they need conclusive proof or a confession to make a charge stick.

What Patterson said to police and how he said it will be key. Keep your eyes peeled for news of a suppression hearing.

If Patterson’s lawyer calls for one, they’ll have to explain why their client’s statements ought to be tossed. A hearing would following the motion to suppress, at which a judge would hear from the detective or detectives who did the interview.

This happens before the trial in plenty of big cases, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a hearing happened here.

4. Could Patterson be in more trouble based on his history?
Yes and no. He did plead guilty to domestic violence and a bond violation for attacking his previous girlfriend and her 3-year-old child. But those were misdemeanors, not felonies.

Previous felonies allow prosecutors to charge a person as a habitual offender, but Patterson doesn’t have any. It takes three simple assault convictions for the potential penalty in a new assault to be enhanced. Patterson doesn’t have that, either.

What he does have is a previous conviction and an ex who’s filed several protection orders against him. Wollman wants him to serve his suspended jail time because of the new charge. If he’s convicted of assault or manslaughter, the judge will likely consider that history in fashioning a sentence.

If he’s convicted of murder, he’s gone for life regardless.

4. Will the child’s mother be charged?

Again, highly unlikely. Now, I understand that there’s been a lively and completely speculative discussion about the role and responsibility of Ruffin’s mother. But I don’t see any charges for her.

Why? Well, let’s be honest about what it means when we say “the mother should be charged for leaving her son with a man who had a history of abuse,” as some commenters have said.

That assumes plenty, chiefly that she knew the history and believed her son was in danger because of it.

Now, there are some people who might go to the county courthouse, pay the $25 fee and run a criminal background check on their potential romantic partners, but most people won’t and the law doesn’t expect people to. People tend to put more stock in what they see and hear from a potential partner than what the past says, anyway.

With regard to Patterson, I know this: A lot more people have been in a lot more trouble for domestic violence than he has without losing the right to see and act as a custodian to their children and other children.

Patterson had been through family violence training. He had unsupervised visitation with his own young son. The woman he’d been charged with attacking dropped each protection order she took out against him.

We don’t know how long Patterson was with Ruffin’s mother. We don’t know if there was any violence in the home prior to the Ruffin assault. Is it possible that there was violence and the mother was too frightened to report it to police? Sure.

It’s just as possible that there had been no violence yet – remember, this was a fairly new relationship – and that Ruffin’s mother only knew Patterson as a loving father to his own kid. Maybe he’d never been left alone with the boy. Maybe he’d been the regular babysitter for hours at a time. Maybe he’d hidden any indication that he had violence in him.

We don’t know the circumstances. Here’s what I do know: I haven’t covered a shaken baby case where the mother has been charged for leaving the child with the caregiver.

If you’d like to press a prosecutor on any of these issues today, you’ll get your chance at 3 p.m.

Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Aaron McGowan, who oversaw each of the previous cases I mentioned, will be on Lalley’s 100 Eyes talk show then.  

McGowan won’t be able to talk about Ruffin, but he should be able to clear some things up.

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