Parents Christopher and Charlotte Sheldon face jail in Plymouth for beating their baby
A CRUEL mother and father sobbed after they were told they would be jailed for beating their baby, leaving him with broken bones and covered in bruises.
Christopher and Charlotte Sheldon, pictured, assaulted their defenceless son Ethan at least three times in the first four months of his life.
He was repeatedly struck with a long thin implement such as a piece of cutlery or a length of flex and squeezed so hard that his ribs broke, Plymouth Crown Court heard. They also failed in their duty as parents to seek medical attention for his painful injuries.
A jury found Christopher, 32, and Charlotte, 24, guilty of two charges of child cruelty following a two-week trial.
Both wept in the arms of relatives outside the courtroom having been told they would go to jail after probation reports have been prepared.
Thanking the jury of eight men and four women, judge Paul Darlow said: "Given the nature and extent of Ethan's injuries, the outcome is inevitable."
Both parents assaulted their only child, leaving him with six broken bones and 20 bruises.
He suffered three broken ribs, a fractured collarbone, a fractured ankle and a broken big toe.
Ethan also had 20 bruises over his body – which doctors concluded could not have been caused accidentally.
The injuries, which happened on at least three occasions over several weeks, were only uncovered after a routine call by a health visitor to the family home in October 2010, when Ethan was four months old.
Both parents denied knowing about the injuries at the time and eventually blamed each other for harming Ethan.
They have since separated and the boy has been taken from them.
But the jury saw through their lies and ruled each had hurt their son behind the closed doors of their home in Sefton Avenue, Lipson. They concluded the parents must have struck their child in anger or frustration and then tried to cover up their crimes.
Christopher Sheldon, of Bridgetown, Totnes, and Charlotte Sheldon, of Sefton Avenue, each denied two charges.
But each was found guilty of "ill-treating or assaulting" Ethan between his birth in May 2010 and October that year by a majority verdict.
The pair were also convicted of "neglecting or exposing" him by failing to seek medical attention for his injuries over the same period, this time by unanimous verdicts.
Christopher Sheldon, a call centre worker, closed his eyes as the foreman of the jury delivered the verdicts before he started crying.
Charlotte Sheldon, a clothes shop assistant, broke down in tears outside the courtroom.
Judge Darlow released them on unconditional bail to face him for sentence on March 8.
The jury were sitting through a retrial after an earlier hearing was abandoned through lack of court time.
They heard doctors say the broken ribs and shoulder blades could have been caused by forceful squeezing far beyond everyday handling of a baby.
Medical experts concluded strong twisting and pulling could have broken Ethan's ankle and big toe.
And the jury was told Ethan had been repeatedly hit with a long thin object, or something flat with raised edges.
He would have been in pain for several days which would have been obvious to anyone looking after him full-time, the court heard.
The Sheldons accepted that the injuries could not have been caused by accident and each blamed the other.
Each accused the other of domestic violence against them and of having affairs in 2011.
Christopher Sheldon has been off work for five years with depression, apparently triggered by a mysterious insect bite on honeymoon.
He spent much of his day in bed and many of his nights playing on a computer games console.
He was under psychiatric care and told to do anger management – but he did not take his medication for months nor go on the course.
His wife's barrister described him as "pathetic" and unable to cope with caring for Ethan.
Charlotte Sheldon was painted by her husband's barrister as a "Jekyll and Hyde" figure who manipulated her partner.
The officer in the case, who wants to remain anonymous for operational reasons, said after the verdicts: "This has been a lengthy investigation where Ethan's welfare and future safety has always been our concern."
He added the police, Crown Prosecution Service and social services had worked as a team to bring the case to court and protect Ethan.
NSPCC WELCOMES CONVICTION
A LEADING child charity has welcomed the convictions of Christopher and Charlotte Sheldon for the assault and neglect of their four-month-old son.
Previously many child abuse prosecutions have collapsed because it was impossible to identify the individual responsible for specific injuries.
But the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims (Amendment) Act, which came into force last year, makes it harder for abusers to shift the blame to others.
Sarah Allum, team manager at The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) Plymouth, said: "The sad fact is that over the years we have seen many circumstances where two parents or carers have been in court accused of inflicting injuries or even killing their young child, and where they have not been convicted because the law required different levels of proof to decide who inflicted each injury.
"The NSPCC was central to bringing in the change in the law which enables both parents to be prosecuted for injuries that had been caused while they were caring for the child."
Last year the serving Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said the law would "close a terrible loophole which has, until now, allowed people accused of seriously harming a child or vulnerable adult to escape unpunished."
Ms Allum added: "Previously in cases like this it might have been difficult to prove who had caused each injury. So, for example, if a child had a broken bone you would have to prove exactly where that bone was broken and by whom.
"These parents have been convicted of neglect, which means that the child was injured while in their care."
Ms Allum added: "Babies under the age of one are seven times more likely to be killed than children in other age groups because they are so vulnerable and they can't tell us what is wrong.
"We welcome the change in legislation. Sadly it is a situation that happens quite regularly. But I now think we have measures in place."
A spokeswoman for Plymouth City Council said the authority's children's services department had no contact with the Sheldon family prior to the charges being brought.
THE HERALD SAYS:
HOW could they? That's the question all decent people in this city will be asking today about Christopher and Charlotte Sheldon.
This vile couple thrashed their baby son with something like a length of flex and squeezed his tiny body so hard that his ribs broke.
By the time little Ethan was just four months old he also had a range of other bruises and broken bones.
The fact that this couple could cause these injuries beggars belief but then they failed to get him treatment. When their violence was uncovered by a health visitor they each denied any knowledge of the injuries and then blamed each other.
A jury has seen through their lies and they have been told it is inevitable they will be sent to prison. That sentence cannot start soon enough or last long enough - their crimes are obscene and are an affront to us all.
It is noteworthy that this shocking case may never have come to court but for a recent change in the law. The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims (Amendment) Act which came into force last year allowed the prosecution to take place without having to demonstrate how each specific injury occurred.
The former Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said the new law closed a 'terrible loophole' which allowed abusers like the Sheldons to evade justice.
Credit must be given to campaign groups like the NSPCC and to the painstaking work of politicians to have brought about this important change in the law.
However, despite yesterday's verdict and the clear intention to punish the Sheldons, the sad truth is that the their' greatest crime is yet to come. Ethan is a child who, like all children, deserves the love and care of his parents. He will undoubtedly receive care and we must all hope that he will be offered the love of a foster family or adoptive parents. But the day will come when he will be told what his birth parents did to him and on that day, if true justice were to be served, the Sheldons should have to answer for their crimes all over again.
And on that day Ethan will ask that simple, unanswerable question: How could they?