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Stepfather Gets Life Sentence In Potty-Training Murder

August 18, 1990

BARTOW, Fla. (AP) _ A man who killed his 2-year-old stepson by plunging him headfirst into a toilet escaped being condemned to death because the judge thought a death penalty would be overturned on appeal.

″I feel the court has no choice but to follow the jury’s recommendation for life″ in prison, Circuit Judge Randall McDonald ruled Friday.

Thomas Coe, 23, must serve 25 years before being eligible for parole. He was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in the death of Bradley McGee.

In response to the killing, the state Legislature rewrote child welfare laws to put the child’s safety above the goal of keeping families together, and allocated $79 million for more child-protection social workers.

McDonald said the sentence was appropriate, since he could find no case where the death penalty was upheld for a child-abuse murder.

″I guess you can get the death penalty if you kill a man,″ responded Pam Kirkland, the child’s foster mother for 14 months. ″But you get life if you kill a child.″

Bradley died of massive head injuries July 28, 1989, only two months after he was ordered returned to Coe, and his mother, Sheryl McGee Coe.

Coe testified being angered when he picked up Bradley by the ankles and slammed him into the commode as a punishment for soiling his pants. But he said he never meant to harm the child.

Coe’s wife testified that her husband routinely ground his fist and cayenne pepper into Bradley’s genitals, and forced him to pick his feces off the floor with his mouth.

Mrs. Coe, 21, earlier this year pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in her son’s death and is serving a 30-year prison term.

Jurors who convicted Coe on July 30 were deadlocked 6-6 in the penalty phase, resulting in an automatic recommendation for life.

Defense attorney Robert Norgard said he planned to appeal both the conviction and sentence. Prosecutors refused comment.

Bradley’s death sparked public outrage because it occurred while he was under the supervision of state social workers.

Bradley’s main caseworker, Margaret Barber, was convicted of child abuse for disregarding a psychological report that described the Coes as unfit parents. She was sentenced to three years’ probation.

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