WOONSOCKET — The state Supreme Court Thursday affirmed the conviction of Gilbert Delestre in connection with the brutal beating death of his 3-year-old foster child, Thomas “T.J.” Wright, in 2004.
Delestre and his girlfriend, Katherine Bunnell, the child’s foster mother and aunt, were both convicted of murder and conspiracy for their role in the boy’s killing after separate trials in 2008.
Witnesses testified Delestre hurled the toddler across a room, then knocked him down a flight of stairs with a backhander, causing the boy to lapse into unconsciousness.
The attack came moments after Bunnell had already beaten the boy when, upon returning home from a night of partying with Delestre, the couple discovered T.J. has spilled some milk and yogurt on the carpet of their Diamond Hill Road apartment.
Bunnell and Delestre were already caring for two of their own small children when child welfare authorities allowed them to become parental guardians of her sister’s three boys, including T.J.’s older siblings. After the killing, the state Department for Children, Youth and Families endured much criticism for allowing the young parents to become so overburdened. The state’s child advocate issued a scathing report which concluded DCYF missed numerous opportunities to save T.J.’s life.
The boy died at Hasbro Children’s Hospital the day after the attack from massive brain trauma coupled with a broken thigh bone which caused extensive internal hemorrhaging.
Delestre, 30, is serving life plus 10 years at the ACI after a Superior Court jury convicted him of second-degree murder and conspiracy in October 2008. He never argued that he didn’t kill the boy, but he asserted that the killing was unintentional and asked jurors to convict him of the lesser crime of manslaughter.
On appeal, Delestre’s court-appointed lawyer, Robert Mann, argued that the trial justice erred when providing the jury with instructions on the law pertaining to the concept of aiding and abetting. Mann contended that the trial judge’s language was tantamount to a denial of due process because it appeared to contain a tacit presumption of his client’s guilt and shift the burden of proof to the defendant.
On a second front, Mann argued that the justice erred in failing to include a so-called “unanimity instruction” to the jury with regard to the murder charge; in other words, Mann contended all 12 jurors not only had to be convinced of Delestre’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict him, but they also had to agree on the legal theory under which he was guilty.
The Supreme Court rejected both arguments.
“Reviewing the challenged instruction in its entirety,” the high court said, “it is our opinion that an ordinary, intelligent lay juror would not have interpreted it as being either conclusive or burden-shifting. Indeed, the trial justice expressly instructed the jury that it ‘may not find (the) defendant guilty under the aiding and abetting theory unless you find beyond a reasonable doubt that every element of the offense which you are considering was committed by some person and that this defendant participated in its commission.’”
Similarly, the high court said there is no tenet of law that requires jurors to be of a single mind on the underlying facts of a crime before rendering a verdict of guilty.
“In light of the defined elements of murder, it is our opinion that the jury was not required to unanimously agree as to whether the defendant was guilty of second-degree murder as a principal, or as an aider and abettor, or as a coconspirator,” the high court said.
Like Delestre, Bunnell is serving life plus 10 years on charges of second-degree murder and conspiracy for her role in the slaying.