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Bessemer man convicted on 3 counts in child abuse case


August 18, 2018

Richard Jenkins/Daily Globe photo

ATTORNEY DOUG Muskett gestures toward his client in Gogebic County Circuit Court Friday while making his closing argument to jurors in Matthew LaPlant's child abuse trial. The jury found LaPlant guilty of three felonies - two counts of second- degree child abuse and one count unlawful imprisonment.

BESSEMER - Matthew James LaPlant, 37, of Bessemer, will learn his fate at his sentencing next month after a jury found him guilty of three felonies in his child abuse trial in Gogebic County Circuit Court.

The jury deliberated for the better part of three hours Friday before finding LaPlant guilty of two counts of second- degree child abuse and one count of unlawful imprisonment.

While LaPlant was also charged with first-degree child abuse, Gogebic County Circuit Judge Michael Pope told jurors they had to choose between that charge and one of the two second-degree counts. The other second-degree charge was unrelated to the two counts. Pope also told jurors they also had the option of convicting LaPlant of the lesser crime of third-degree child abuse in both instances.

The prosecution said LaPlant physically abused his ex-girlfriend's then 7-year-old son while they were living together, as well as locking him in a dog kennel, calling him names and making him put soiled underwear in his mouth as punishment.

After three days of testimony, including from both LaPlant and the child, Friday began with both attorneys making their closing arguments and the jury conducting its deliberations.

Gogebic County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Tracie Wittla recapped her case, recounting the charges against LaPlant and the evidence she said proved he was guilty of them.

During the trial LaPlant admitted to putting the child in the dog kennel, but said he only did it once and the child's mother was responsible for any other times.

"How many nights is too many nights in a dog kennel? One? Five? Did we not reach the threshold at 25? Thirty isn't enough? Would it have to be 200? A year? A decade? How many?" Wittla asked the jury. "It's not about numbers. It's about the impact it has on the child involved."

Regarding defense testimony from relatives and family friends who trusted LaPlant to watch them or their children without issue, Wittla argued he acted dif---ferently in private.

"People have different things they show (people.) There's your public face, there's your private face, there's your secret face," Wittla said. "You don't show everything to everyone. ... You pick and choose to make yourself look a particular way."

During his closing, Muskett charged the prosecution had failed to prove its case and reasonable doubt remained on whether his client was guilty of the charges.

Muskett told the jury cases like LaPlant's were why he was a defense attorney.

"The real reason I do this job is because sometimes you get a case like this," Muskett said. "You get a case where you just don't think it adds up. You think, 'All these pieces, they don't fit together right.' And you get to defend someone that you want to defend."

Muskett attacked the child's mother, painting a picture of a woman who on more than one occasion allowed abuse to happen and then brought up allegations after the relationship ended.

He also said the prosecution was hoping the members of the jury would allow their emotions to make the decision, rather than reason and the facts.

"(The kennel) is (in front of the jury) for one reason, she wants you to look at that dog kennel. ... She wants you to think about a little boy in that dog kennel, and she wants you to be angry. She wants you to feel emotion," Muskett said. "Because that's what this is about, you're angry about what happened to that kid, you want to punish someone for it."

In her rebuttal, Wittla denied using the dog kennel as a prop throughout the trial and closing statements.

"It's not a prop, it's not a joke, it's not meant to elicit any emotion in you. It's a fact, this kennel is a fact. It was seized from the house, it was where (the victim) slept," Wittla said.

Conviction on any abuse charge required the jury find LaPlant "had care or custody of, or authority over, (the child) when the abuse allegedly happened," according to the jury instructions in the case, and the victim was under 18 at the time of the crime.

To convict LaPlant of first-degree child abuse, the jury also had to find he "knowingly or intentionally caused serious mental harm to (the child)," according to the instructions.

The instructions defined serious mental harm as "an injury to a child's mental condition that results in visible signs of an impairment in the child's judgement, behavior, ability to recognize reality or ability to cope with the ordinary demands of life."

Second-degree abuse requires they find "knowingly or intentionally did an act likely to cause serious physical or mental harm to (the child), regardless of whether such harm resulted," according to the instructions; whereas third-degree abuse simply required the jury find LaPlant "knowingly or intentionally" caused harm rather than serious harm.

The other second- degree charge required the jury find LaPlant acted in a way that was cruel to (the child.) It could also find LaPlant guilty of the lower charge of third-degree abuse on this count, too.

For unlawful imprisonment, the jury had to find LaPlant forcibly restricted the child's movements or forcibly confined him and that it was done to "facilitate the commission of another felony," according to the jury instructions.

LaPlant is scheduled to be sentenced on the three felonies Sept. 18. Each of the abuse charges carries a potential maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison, while the unlawful imprisonment charge carries a potential maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.


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