Peterson is expected to plead not guilty Wednesday during his first court appearance since being indicted last month

Credit: Wesley Hitt/Getty

For Texas prosecutor Lucy Wilke, there was no gray area about whether an 11-year-old boy being hit nearly 20 times with a three-foot piece of looped wire by his father for not taking out the trash was discipline or child abuse.

“This was just excessive. This was abuse and not corporal punishment,” said Wilke, who in 2010 helped convict the Kerrville, Texas, man on a charge of injury to a child. He was sentenced to four years in prison.

Prosecutors in Montgomery County, north of Houston, also believe there is no gray area when it comes to Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who faces the exact same charge. Like the Kerrville case, Peterson used an object – in his case a tree branch – to discipline his 4-year-old son.

Peterson is expected to plead not guilty on Wednesday during his first court appearance since being indicted last month. If convicted, Peterson faces up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Peterson has said he never intended to harm his son and was only disciplining him in the same way he had been disciplined as a child growing up in East Texas.

Corporal punishment is legal in every U.S. state. Should Peterson’s case go to trial, legal experts say, the final determination of what is reasonable discipline will be based on the standards found in the local community – and Texas law offers no definition of what that is. It says the use of non-deadly force against someone younger than 18 is justified if a parent or guardian “reasonably believes the force is necessary to discipline the child or to safeguard or promote his welfare.”

The Texas Attorney General’s Office notes that belts and brushes “are accepted by many as legitimate disciplinary tools, but “electrical or phone cords, boards, yardsticks, ropes, shoes, and wires are likely to be considered instruments of abuse.”

What Is Reasonable Punishment?

F. Scott McCown, director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law that represents children in abuse and neglect cases, said people can have abstract debates about what is reasonable but they tend to come to a consensus when looking at a specific case.

Some of the factors that tend to be used to decide whether corporal punishment was unreasonable include whether a child needed medical attention and if the disciplining left visible marks and bruises, McCown said.

According to court records, Peterson’s son suffered cuts, marks and bruising to his thighs, back and on one of his testicles.

Wilke, a prosecutor in Kerr County for 17½ years, said a case of a mother slapping her child as part of disciplining efforts isn’t “necessarily inappropriate corporal punishment” and normally Child Protective Services would handle such a case.

It’s unclear how many cases involving abuse claims stemming from corporal punishment are dealt with either by Texas courts or CPS. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, CPS’s parent agency, doesn’t keep statistics detailing whether an abuse case involved corporal punishment. McCown said that in most of the cases his clinic has handled, usually parents do not end up going to jail.

Potential Jury Pool

If Peterson’s case goes to trial, prosecutors and defense attorneys will be picking jurors in a county with conservative beliefs and one that has also banned corporal punishment in its largest school district. E. Tay Bond, an attorney who has worked in Montgomery County for 16 years, said the potential jury pool in the Peterson case will likely not be economically or racially diverse.

Because jurors are summoned via email, the jury pool will be made up of individuals with a higher socio-economic status, who tend to be more conservative, Bond said.

“People will still discipline their children … As long as it’s appropriate and not excessive, it’s not a crime,” Wilke said.

Wilke said there was nothing ambiguous about the 2009 case involving David Dill and his then 11-year-old son in Kerrville, 65 miles northwest of San Antonio.

Dill binded his son’s hands, feet and mouth with duct tape and then used the three-foot piece of looped wire the family nicknamed the “Pop Wire” to hit his son for not taking out the trash and for turning on the air conditioner. The boy ended up with 13 marks on his buttocks and legs.

“It was so severe that I really wasn’t concerned if some jurors might find it appropriate,” Wilke said.

The range of punishment for an injury-to-a-child charge depends on the defendant’s intent. Peterson is accused of injuring his son through his reckless actions, while Dill was accused of intentionally or knowingly causing injury to his child. He faced up to 10 years in prison.

In court documents, Dill denied doing anything wrong. Like Peterson, Dill said he disciplined his son similar to how he had been punished as a child.

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