Just minutes after hearing the jury’s guilty verdict Thursday afternoon, Kaleb Layton Laatsch huddled on a courthouse bench with his wife, Sarah. Tears ran down their faces as the reality of the situation began to sink in.
They are the same tears of fears and frustration the couple has shed many times during the past 18 months.
“There’s nothing worse than the thought of losing my husband,” Sarah Laatsch said. “That’s the next worse thing that they could do to our family.”
The couple spent the past two days recounting the painful events of Aug. 16, 2011, that changed their family forever. They listened to doctors testify about the damage that was done to their son, Gideon, when he was accidentally left in Kaleb’s pickup for an entire day while he was at work. They testified about Gideon’s arduous recovery, one marked with unexpected progress.
It took only about an hour for the six-man jury to return a guilty verdict for a single count of misdemeanor child endangerment.
That came after defense attorney Nick Carter and prosecutor Jackie Brown shot back and forth at each other about the semantics of Wyoming’s child endangerment statute.
“Some things, you don’t forget,” Brown argued. “Parents have a duty of care to protect their children. The state recognizes that Mr. Laatsch didn’t do this purposefully or intentionally. Everyone knows you don’t leave a 9-month-old child alone, especially in a car on a hot summer day.”
She argued that when Laatsch, 28, left his pickup to go to the oil field for the day to work as a roustabout, he committed criminal negligence that led to lifelong damage to his son’s brain.
Dr. David Diamond, an expert in neurology and memory and witness for the defense, attributed it to a failure of memory. He is researching incidents like the one that involved Laatsch.
Diamond explained that the subconscious part of the brain that controls routine actions, like driving to work, often override conscious thought. He suspects that the events of the morning of Aug. 16 that led Kaleb Laatsch to leave Gideon inside the pickup likely are the result of ordinary brain functions.
“The very human act of forgetting is now, according to them, a crime,” Carter said, pointing to the prosecutor. “This is a tragedy, this is not a crime. In this case, by all accounts, Mr. Laatsch forgot. Mr. Laatsch will feel guilt the rest of his life. That doesn’t mean the state needs to get involved.”
Nobody tried to say that Laatsch didn’t forget that his 9-month-old son was in the back of his pickup and, instead of dropping him at day care, drove straight to work.
Gideon was in the hot pickup for about nine hours. When paramedics got to the boy, his body temperature was 108 degrees and doctors worked frantically to lower his temperature and save his life, according to an affidavit of probable cause filed in the case.
At the Campbell County Memorial Hospital emergency room, doctors told the couple the little time they could spend with their son might be their last.
He was only at the hospital for 18 minutes before being flown by air ambulance to Denver Children’s Hospital and admitted to the pediatric Intensive Care Unit. He spent a month there before he returned home to Gillette with his parents.
Since then, Gideon has made many strides, including eating solid food. He is about 21⁄2 years old now, and is beginning to learn to stand.
His recovery has been slow, and he is far behind other boys his age developmentally. But the couple has hope.
After the verdict was announced, Circuit Judge Terrill R. Tharp worked with the attorneys to schedule a sentencing hearing for the case. The April hearing will give Tharp a chance to hear arguments from both sides about whether Laatsch should serve time in jail. The law allows up to a year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine for those convicted of child endangerment.
The conviction was a victory for the prosecution, although in a case like Laatsch’s, nobody really wins, Brown said.
Carter vowed to re-examine the arguments in the case and possibly file appeals before the sentencing. He contended that the law Laatsch was convicted under is far too vague and open to interpretation.
“God help us if forgetting becomes a crime in this state or this country,” Carter said.