'Cages' prosecutor tough on own kids

Date: 2006-11-23

'Cages' prosecutor tough on own kids

Mark Puente
Plain Dealer Reporter

Norwalk – The man prosecuting Michael and Sharen Gravelle on child-endangering charges gives these examples of his own parenting:

He once kicked his teenage son out of the car and made him walk two blocks in minus-15 degree weather.

He gave his son burns by dragging him across the carpet for not going to swim lessons. Fortunately, he said, the statute of limitations has run out.

Huron County Prosecutor Russ Leffler made the comments last week while questioning potential jurors in the Gravelles' trial. The Gravelles are accused of making some of their 11 adopted children sleep in enclosed beds that prosecutors have called “cages.”

Defense attorney Ken Myers ordered a transcript of the questioning for possible use during the trial.

The Gravelles each face 16 counts of felony child endangering. They say they built enclosures around some of the children's beds to protect the special-needs youngsters from their own destructive behavior.

If convicted, the Gravelles could be sentenced to one to five years in prison and fined a maximum of $10,000 on each felony count.

The attorneys this week selected 10 men and six women as jurors and alternates. Opening arguments will begin Tuesday.

During jury selection, Leffler asked potential jurors about the punishment they had used with their children.

He asked one man: “What's the most creative discipline that you feel you used with your children?”

The man said he put his children on the porch in the winter to cool off after they had been fighting.

Leffler replied: “I once got into trouble for dumping my son out in 15-below zero and he had to walk home and I heard about it from Dick Hauser for some time.”

Hauser, the former county prosecutor, said his son was in the car with Leffler during the incident. “It was no big deal,” he said Wednesday.

Leffler said the incidents occurred more than seven years ago and the discipline did not constitute child abuse. He was a lenient parent to his five children, he said.

Erich Dumbeck, director of Huron County Family Services, said Leffler apparently felt that his punishment methods were appropriate. He declined further comment.

Jim McCafferty, director of the Cuyahoga County Department of Children & Family Services, said the actions Leffler described have never been an acceptable form of discipline.

If someone were to report that type of parenting to Cuyahoga authorities, they would look into it to see whether the child was at risk, he said.

“It makes your antenna go up,” McCafferty said.

Leffler said he shared his experiences as a parent to connect with potential jurors. He wanted parents on the jury who have disciplined their children, he said.

Katherine Federle, law professor at Ohio State University and co-chair of the child welfare subcommittee of the American Bar Association, said many lawyers use tactics like Leffler’s during trials. “It’s a strategy to show that he is a normal person who makes mistakes,” she said.

But Leffler, Federle said, might have gone too far. “It is unusual,” she said. “It sounds as if he is confessing.”

Myers pointed out that Leffler made the comments during a child-endangering trial. Leffler injected his own parenting skills into the trial, Myers said.

“It seems there is a double standard here,” Myers said.

Leffler replied: “Myers is entitled to his opinion.”

© 2006 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.


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