ROCKLAND, Maine — A Superior Court justice on Thursday rejected as too lenient a plea agreement for a Searsport man accused of inflicting what the justice called “horrific injuries” on a 3-year-old girl.
The District Attorney’s Office and defense attorney had agreed to cap the time Christopher Riley, 31, would serve in prison to three years if he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and assault on a child.
No, said Justice Jeffrey Hjelm, Riley should serve at least seven years in prison for scalding the child, who will be scarred for life.
“This is a major crime,” Hjelm told the attorneys in Knox County Superior Court on Thursday. “If Mr. Riley committed this crime, the full weight of the law should be approached.”
In May 2009, Riley ran a hot bath for his 3-year-old stepdaughter. When the girl yelled “ouch ouch ouch” he put his hand over her mouth to keep her quiet. He then kept her sitting in the scalding tub while he shampooed her hair and left her there while he went outside to smoke pot, Waldo County Deputy District Attorney Eric Walker said in court Thursday.
Eventually he pulled the 3-year-old out of the tub and put clothes on her. When the girl’s mother came in and saw that her pants were wet, she pulled them off her. The 3-year-old’s skin peeled off with the pants.
The girl will be scarred for life and will need skin grafts for the next 16 years.
According to Hjelm’s analysis, Riley has shown “no empathy” for the little girl.
Riley, Hjelm said, knew his hot water heater was defective and would sputter 150-degree water into the bath. He had burned himself before.
The girl’s grandmother spoke in court on behalf of the child during the sentencing hearing on Thursday. She described what it was like on May 28 when she saw her granddaughter in the hospital, getting skin grafted to the 20 percent of her body that suffered third-degree burns.
“She had to be flushed with a waterlike solution to keep the moisture. This really made her scream,” the grandmother said. “Being held in water made her cry and hurt and be terrified. Every time they came to flush her out she would scream.”
The Bangor Daily News is not naming the grandmother or the girl in order to protect the victim.
The girl stayed at a Boston hospital’s burn unit for months. Her grandmother visited her every week.
“Nana?” the girl said during one visit.
“Chris hurt me with water,” the girl told her grandmother.
“Chris can’t hurt you now,” the grandmother said.
Addressing the court justice, the grandmother said, “Have you ever seen a child hurt so much and not be able to give them a hug and make them feel better? To see a child in so much pain tore me up inside.”
The woman asked Hjelm to give Riley a long sentence and for him to make sure Riley can’t have contact with children.
Ultimately, Hjelm rejected the plea agreement and told Riley that he would be sentenced to nine years in prison with all but seven years suspended if he kept his guilty plea. He also would have to serve three years of probation after his release, Hjelm said. Riley was told that he could change his plea to not guilty and risk going to trial, where he could face up to 10 years in prison.
Hjelm put the case on the October trial list for Waldo County to give Riley and his attorney, Thomas Shehan of Belfast, time to ponder the choice.
If the case does go to trial, the girl, who is now 5 years old, might be forced to testify.