BY LEANN DILBECK –
It took a jury less than one hour to return with a guilty verdict for Gregory S. Pruitt on the charge of 1st Degree Battery in the assault on (then) 2-year old Gregg Stanga, Jr. According to medical professionals who first assessed “lil’ Gregg,” as he was commonly referred to during testimony, he suffered a subdural hematoma, cranial bleed, skull fracture, pulmonary contusions, leg and facial contusions, bite wound on wrist and paralysis on right side. Lil’ Gregg had been entrusted to Pruitt’s care by his mother, Sabrina Roberts Clovis. The couple shared a residence together in Wickes along with Clovis’ three older children. Following the conviction and sentencing of Pruitt, Prosecuting Attorney Andy Riner said, “Sadly, it is very rare that law enforcement can actually prove a child abuse case beyond a reasonable doubt. Children can’t speak or defend themselves, so while it is easy to prove physical abuse, it is often difficult to prove who subjected a child to abuse.” But that was not the case in Polk County District Court, Monday as a 12-member jury agreed unanimously that Gregory S. Pruitt was responsible for the injuries inflicted on Stanga.
During testimony, Clovis stated that she left the residence in a borrowed vehicle to go to Cove to do laundry at a friend’s house around 9 a.m. on the morning of October 20, 2014, just after getting her three older daughters off to school. She said that when she left, Pruitt was awake and playing games on the computer while her son was watching cartoons. She explained that she and Pruitt only had about a week left in the trailer and had decided to go their separate ways at the end of the week, citing Pruitt’s drug use and unemployment as contributing factors. During cross-examination, Clovis admitted that while the relationship had not worked out, she had never been struck by Pruitt or ever been concerned for the kids’ welfare while in his care.
She said she spoke to Pruitt at around 11 a.m. without incident but said she was unable to reach him later in the afternoon and became concerned. She asked a friend to drive her home and to wait in the driveway and upon entering the residence discovered lil’ Gregg in the floor near the couch with notable injuries. She carried him out where she and her friend picked up the other children from school, called 9-1-1 and began racing to Mena. The ambulance intercepted them in Hatfield and urgently rushed lil’ Gregg to MRHS where he was subsequently airlifted to Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) with injuries considered life-threatening.
Chief Deputy Scott Sawyer interviewed Sabrina in Hatfield before he and another deputy proceeded to Wickes to question Pruitt. During the initial interview, Pruitt admitted to slapping the child on the left side of his face and spanking him at least 7 times, 1 to 3 licks each time, but attempted to minimize his actions as discipline. He confirmed the bite mark on lil’ Gregg’s wrist was his because “he (the toddler) had bit him first.” He also gave several versions of a story that the child had fallen previously. He struggled to remember details; however, during questioning the following day he admitted to becoming mad because lil’ Gregg (being potty-trained) had an accident in his pants. When asked about the inconsistencies in his stories from the day before, Pruitt admitted to being “high as hell.”
Dr. Teresa Esquviel from ACH testified as an expert witness for the prosecution and discussed her initial assessment of the child upon his arrival, citing that the child coded twice and had to be resuscitated. He was placed on life-support and a G-tube for feeding. She noted the visible handprint bruising on lil’ Gregg’s left side of his face and his eyes being deviated to the right, consistent with blunt trauma sustained on the left. She testified, in detail, the extent of each of his injuries and as a member of a special child abuse assessment team at ACH, conclusively determined that the injuries he had endured were consistent with “shaken baby” syndrome and not that of an accident.
She stated that lil’ Gregg was discharged on December 4, 2014, but still has special needs. Fifteen months later, he continues to work with occupational and speech therapists and has regained partial use on his right side but still has motor skill deficiencies. The G-tube remains and while he is able to eat and drink “a little,” he still cannot take certain foods because his swallowing abilities have been compromised due to the extensive brain damage he sustained. Esquviel said that there is a 30% chance that lil’ Gregg will maintain deficiencies for the remainder of his life and have special needs.
The defendant did not testify and his defense counsel, Shane Ethridge, called only one witness, Randy Pruitt, the defendant’s father. He offered an alibi testimony that directly contradicted information provided by his son during his interview. When examined by prosecution, Randy Pruitt confirmed he had refused to speak to law enforcement before, under advisement of counsel; however, defense attorneys cited that it was not them who had advised him.
Upon the jurors finding Pruitt guilty and the trial entering the sentencing phase, Prosecuting Attorney Andy Riner called Kim Carter, lil’ Gregg’s foster mother, who discussed caring for the toddler’s special needs. Aside from his special daily care and treatment, Carter explained the child’s susceptibility to “brain bleeds” that cause seizures, and if not treated correctly and promptly, could cause him to die. She explained that lil’ Gregg has endured two additional high-risk brain surgeries brought about from these “bleeds.” She testified that lil’ Gregg who is now age 3, cognitively is at 15-18 months and his latest speech assessment placed him under 24 months.
Jurors also heard from Pruitt’s family members asking for mercy before hearing from Pruitt himself. “I apologize for what happened. I would take it back if I could. I would trade places with him, if I could.”
Jurors had the option of sentencing Pruitt to life in prison or to choose a term between 10 to 40 years. Jurors showed Pruitt, age 30, mercy and just before 8 p.m. Monday (February 22) evening jurors returned, sentencing him to 40-years in the Department of Corrections, where, under Arkansas sentencing guidelines, he will be eligible for parole in 10 years. Riner said of the case, “This was, without a doubt, the most disturbing one I have ever prosecuted. Mr. Pruitt’s inexcusable, brutal abuse of this innocent two year old, who he left lying for dead, ranks among the most violent, black hearted crimes I have ever prosecuted. I thank God that justice was served.”
Pruitt was immediately remanded to the Polk County Sheriff awaiting placement at a state facility.