A 3rd District Court judge has sentenced a couple convicted of starving their infant son to serve one year each in the Salt Lake County Jail.
Judge Frank Noel told Richard and Beckie Burns during the Friday sentencing he believed the five-years-to-life sentence possible for their first-degree murder conviction was more harsh than they deserved. Although he noted the Burnses' apparent indifference for their child, Noel said the parents' neglect was not malicious."I have found no one . . . who believes the Burnses intentionally withheld food from their baby," he said. "But I do believe there must be some punishment. The court must speak for the victim."
A jury convicted the couple, both 19 years old, of starving their 6-month-old Down syndrome baby Shawn until he died Aug. 4, 1991, from dehydration and malnutrition.
During sentencing, prosecutor Rod Ybarra urged Noel not to forget the baby. "We can't allow ourselves to indulge in any kind of weighing of that person's life. It's an enormous affront to the people of this state to have one of their own starve in a land of plenty."
Ybarra asked the judge to apply the full sentence in light of the couple's denial of responsibility. "They've never once indicated any kind of responsibility for the death of this child. We might feel a bit more compassion, but they've been defiant to the end."
Defense attorney Tom Rasmussen said the Burnses cared for their child but were unable to express their emotions. "The Burnses may have been over their heads with a baby with Shawn's medical problems. But I don't think anyone believes Doug (Richard) and Beckie Burns wanted or intended their child to die."
Rasmussen said the Burnses' age, inexperience and illiteracy, combined with the trauma of their son's death and the trial for his murder, could be better served through counseling.
"These are not murderers in the sense that we think of murderers. Nor are they people who need prison or would do well there," he said.
"I don't think they are a threat to anybody. There are no new victims in this case. This is not a case in which they are a continuing threat to the community."
The Burnses will serve one year in the county jail and will be on parole for three years. Noel also ordered them to pay a $2,500 fine with a 25 percent surcharge, enroll in alcohol and drug abuse therapy and parenting classes and complete the GED high school equivalency test.
Rasmussen said Noel was as fair as possible. "It's kind of awkward to look two people in the eye and tell them that one year is good. But one year is really a home run compared to what they could have gotten."
Ybarra said, "I won't argue with his judgment. The community will be aware we simply cannot tolerate this type of treatment of children."
The couple also has a 3-year-old daughter, Brittany, who is being cared for by Jean Burns, Richard's mother. Rasmussen said he expects the parents to have custody of their daughter when they get out of jail.