By Jeff Lehr
Judge Gayle Crane told a courtroom crowded with supporters of shaken-baby-case defendant Nicholas A. Hoth on Monday that the autopsy report on the death of 2-month-old Zecheriah Coulthard could not allow her to grant Hoth probation.
Crane cited evidence a medical examiner found of violent abuse in sentencing Hoth, 27, of Oronogo, to 15 years in prison for the death of his girlfriend’s baby two years ago. The Coulthard child died of shaken-baby injuries suffered Nov. 2, 2006, while in Hoth’s care at his girlfriend’s home in Webb City.
Probable-cause affidavits and testimony at a preliminary hearing established that Hoth admitted to investigators that he shook the baby in an effort to make him stop crying, and that he did not call for medical assistance when the child became unresponsive because he feared what he had done would be discovered.
The defendant also admitted that he had shaken the baby in a similar fashion a few days earlier, causing bleeding from the baby’s mouth.
Public defender Larry Maples argued at the sentencing hearing Monday that his client should be granted some form of probation because he suffers from a mental disorder resulting from fetal-alcohol syndrome, he already had spent more than two years in jail for the crime, and he had never been violent or abusive to anyone previously.
“I don’t believe Nick intended any injury to this child,” Maples told the court.
The defense attorney called numerous witnesses, including Hoth’s adoptive mother and the baby’s mother, to testify on his behalf at the sentencing hearing.
The victim’s mother, who was Natasha Coulthard at the time, told the court that she was 21 and pregnant with Zecheriah when she first met Hoth and began dating him. Once Zecheriah was born, Hoth treated the baby as if he were his own son, she said. She said he was never abusive to the baby in her presence.
Marcia Hoth, the defendant’s adoptive mother, told the court that Nicholas Hoth related well to other children in their family and at church, and was popular with them. Nicholas Hoth and Coulthard planned to marry, she said, adding that Hoth’s love for Zecheriah was evident, and especially just the week before the baby’s death when the family had gone on a trip to the zoo in Tulsa, Okla.
She said her family members have not forgotten Zecheriah or what happened to him. But they do not see how any purpose would be served by sending Nicholas Hoth to prison, she said.
“I don’t believe at all that he’s a threat to society,” she said.
The defense had sought previously to have Hoth declared mentally incompetent to assist in his defense based on his relatively poor social judgment and reasoning skills. A psychologist, Thomas Blansett, had testified that the defendant has an IQ of 73 on the Wexler scale, and has mental disorders secondary to alcohol use, including attention-deficit disorder, chronic depression and anxiety.
But in April 2007, the court found Hoth mentally competent to stand trial.
Blansett testified at Monday’s hearing that he believes Hoth suffers from a mental disorder resulting from fetal-alcohol syndrome brought on by his biological mother’s use of alcohol while he was in the womb. He said a family history shows that the biological mother was hospitalized numerous times for alcohol abuse and mental illness.
Under cross-examination by Assistant Prosecutor Norman Rouse, the psychologist acknowledged that he had found no record of a medical diagnosis of Hoth with fetal-alcohol syndrome, although the family members believe they were told that the defendant had the syndrome when he was first brought to them as an infant.
Rouse told the court that the medical evidence showed that the baby suffered “repeated shaking” to the point where the brain “rattled around” in his head and swelled “so much that it ruptured his skull like a gourd.” He said that while family members may prefer to think of the defendant as gentle and incapable of harming a child, the evidence showed otherwise.
“With respect to that child that day, he was anything but gentle,” Rouse said.
Nicholas Hoth pleaded guilty in September to a charge of second-degree murder in a plea agreement with the Jasper County prosecutor’s office that limited the prison time he might be required to serve to no more than 15 years.
By Jeff Lehr