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Three Children, Three Deaths: Prosecuting Child Homicides

For commonwealth attorney, these cases take an emotional toll.

Their names are Kevin, Katelynn and Dale, and to Commonwealth Attorney S. Randolph Sengel and his staff, they are much more than just homicide victims.

The three children were killed between April 2000 and June 2001. On Jan. 25, those responsible for the last homicide, that of nine-year-old Dale Smith, were sentenced. Now, there is only Gregory Murphy, the man who is charged with the first murder, that of eight-year-old Kevin Shifflett, left to prosecute. Murphy has been found not competent to stand trial and is currently receiving treatment at Central State Hospital.

“Prosecuting child homicide cases is different because our relationship with the families is different,” Sengel said. “We want to be sensitive and treat them as victims and make them comfortable working with the staff who are investigating and prosecuting the case. The staff is also affected because these are children and many of us are parents and grandparents. Anyone of these children could be one of our own.”

The emotional toll is great on all the staff.

“We live with these kids every day that we are working on the case,” Sengel said. “I am so grateful that I have experienced prosecutors in this office who can take a case like one of these three cases and handle it. If one of us had to handle all of them at the same time it would be almost impossible.”

The three cases are similar but different. “In some ways, it is harder to prosecute cases like this when the parent or guardian is also the suspect,” Sengel said. “We just wonder how anyone could do these things to their own child or permit someone else to do them.”

Sengel has spoken to prosecutors across Virginia who have discussed with him juries’ reluctance to punish parents as harshly as they punish strangers who commit the same type of crime. “For some reason, they seem to want to give parents the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

In the Smith case, there was no jury. Both the father and stepmother entered guilty pleas. The sentence for the father went beyond the sentencing guidelines and the stepmother received three years in prison. Pennee Frazier, Katelynn’s mother, also entered a guilty plea and will serve 10 years in prison for failing to protect the little girl from Asher Levin, Pennee’s boyfriend who was convicted of the little girl’s murder. A jury recommended a sentence for Levin that fell in the middle of the sentencing guidelines.

ABOUT KATELYNN

The death of Katelynn Frazier had the added dimension of involving a city agency, the Department of Human Services. Sengel said that the case did not have to pit one agency against the other. “Our roles are certainly different,” he said, “but if the goal is the best interest of children, it does not need to be adversarial. I have always tried to stay out of the administrative piece of this case and have said from the beginning that our investigation into the criminal case and the investigation of what happened administratively are two totally different issues. I have my own opinion about what happened because I have lived with this case for more than a year and have had to reconstruct what happened and when it happened as part of our investigation.”

The investigation proved that Katelynn was abused from the time she was returned to Pennee Frazier until her death. “We had pictures and we had to figure out when they were taken,” Sengel said.

There was one picture of Katelynn in a jumper that was purchased for her by Levin’s mother. Investigators figured out where the dress was purchased and then the date on which it was purchased.

“We were able to solve that case with good old-fashioned hard work,” Sengel said. “I know it sounds corny, but that’s what happened.”

Sengel has stated publicly that Katelynn’s death was avoidable and does not believe that she was returned to Pennee Frazier as the result of bad laws.

“Changing the law would not have prevented Katelynn’s death,” he said. “Judges can only rule on information that is in front of them, not what should be in front of them. I believe that both of the judges who were involved in this case behaved properly and fairly. Blaming them just is not appropriate.”

Sengel should know, because, until 1997, the commonwealth attorney's office represented social services in such cases.

He believes that the city can, and must move forward but with lessons learned. “I am concerned that moving forward for some people may mean sweeping the whole case under the rug and forgetting about it,” Sengel said. “If we move forward in that manner, there will be other Katelynns. If, however, we learn from this case and make appropriate changes, then we can move forward constructively.”

Sengel is moving forward, but with a picture of Katelynn on his desk and a collage of pictures and newspaper clippings is being framed and will hang on the wall in the Commonwealth Attorney’s office.

“Katelynn is a hero for me,” he said. “I look at that picture and see a little girl who was still trying to smile even with everything she was enduring. You can see her personality in the picture and I’m not just saying that based on what I’ve been told. I got to know that little girl by watching hours of videos as well as talking to those who loved and cared for her. I have a granddaughter who is about the same age. I want the collage and Katelynn to be a reminder to everyone that she is why we come to work every day to do this job.”