Man, 22, sentenced in death of toddler

20-year term given at emotional hearing

March 10, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

The paper fluttered in Michele Franz's shaking hands as she read the statement she had written for this day. Her voice trembled as she tried to do the impossible -- to describe what happens to you when someone kills your baby.

"I'm tired of being sad," she told the judge. "I'm tired of crying myself to sleep. I'm tired of feeling out of place. I'm just tired of being tired."

A few feet away, 22-year-old Gary Buehler sobbed with his head in his hands and his ankles in shackles. Soon, he would read his own statement, written on a folded sheet of yellow legal paper. "I'm sorry, Michele," he would say.

In January, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Ruth A. Jakubowski found Buehler guilty of shaking Franz's toddler to death. Yesterday, she sentenced the man who was once Franz's boyfriend to 20 years in prison.

The sentence was less time than prosecutors Sue Hazlett and Adam Lippe had asked for, but adequate, they said. Buehler's attorney, Jerri Peyton-Braden, called it "very fair."

"In a case like this, nobody wins," she said.

Medical records show that 16-month-old Ciara Franz, the child with the big brown eyes, was shaken so brutally in July 2002 that parts of her brain slammed into each other. She had 54 bruises, according to an autopsy report. A medical examiner testified that the baby had received additional blows to her head.

Buehler, who on that day was taking care of the toddler at his mother's Essex home while Franz was at work, at first denied shaking her. But at trial, Dr. Allen R. Walker, the director of pediatric medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital, testified that when Ciara was brought into the emergency room, doctors knew they were dealing with a classic case of "shaken-baby syndrome."

He and other emergency pediatric doctors are well acquainted with the constellation of injuries that make up shaken-baby syndrome, otherwise known as abusive head trauma. Despite national campaigns and increased public recognition, the number of shaken-baby deaths does not seem to have decreased.

Nationwide, hundreds of babies and toddlers are seriously hurt or killed by violent shaking each year. Although there are few statistics about such deaths in Maryland, Walker said that around a dozen fatal cases come through his emergency room annually.

Yesterday, Franz, 21, brought lockets of Ciara's dark ringlets to show Jakubowski. She brought a heart-shaped plaster cast with an imprint of her daughter's hand, made at the hospital while Ciara was on life support. She brought photos.

"My daughter was the love of my life," Franz said. "Once she was born, she became the reason I lived."

Since the girl's death, Franz said, her family has been tortured, and she has tried to take her own life.

"I just wanted to lie in bed and die with her," Franz said yesterday.

Patricia Lindblade, Franz's grandmother, who often took care of Ciara, wrote a letter to the judge. It's hard to look at the rocking chair where she once held the toddler, she said. Although she had placed the book she always read to Ciara -- Clifford The Big Red Dog -- in the child's coffin, the lines in the story haunt her.

"Some days it's better, and sometimes it catches me off guard," Lindblade wrote to the judge. "The sound of a baby laughing on TV in another room can cause me to tear up and flood my emotions with sadness."

Buehler's family sobbed as Franz spoke. Later, his mother and sister took turns giving their own statements apologizing to Franz and her family, though their sobs made most of their words unrecognizable.

A psychologist testified about Buehler's mental state, about how the man many people described as "gentle" could have done this to a child he had known for 10 weeks and said he loved. The lawyers argued for the sentences they thought appropriate -- the prosecutors wanted 30 years in prison, the defense wanted less.

As Jakubowski pronounced the 20-year sentence, with a recommendation that Buehler receive counseling in prison, the courtroom was silent. Franz and her family filed out, and Buehler's mother embraced her son.

"I love you," Buehler said to her, still clutching a Kleenex.

As they held each other, Franz's family glanced at them.

"They get to say goodbye," said Laura Franz, Michele's mother.

When doctors were about to take Ciara off life support, the Franz family could not hug her. They had arranged for the baby girl to be an organ donor and could not risk further damaging her body.

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