‘Justice was served’ – but it wasn’t easy: Stepmom gets 13 years in child’s death

September 13, 2018

DIXON – Some people might not think it fair.

For injuring her 6-year-old stepson so severely that he suffered brain damage and later died, Tiffany Fassler will serve 11 to 13 years in prison.

She could have been sentenced to 20 to 60 years, had she been convicted of Colton Fassler’s murder. Early on, prosecutors said they would seek a life sentence.

Instead, the 42-year-old Dixon woman – a nurse at the time she kicked the child into a bathroom vanity, cracking his skull – was sentenced Tuesday to 13 years for aggravated battery of a child.

She must serve at least 85 percent, a little more than 11 years, and upon her release must register as a violent offender against youth for the rest of her life. If she behaves herself in prison, she should be out around the time she turns 54, then will be on mandatory probation for 3 years.

As part of the plea agreement, two counts of first-degree murder and three other counts of aggravated battery of a child were dismissed.

That agreement, coming as it did nearly 8 years after Colton was injured, was not arrived at lightly.

It was, in fact, “a very difficult decision,” made with input from, and the well-being of, members of the Fassler family – and especially Colton’s two brothers – foremost in his mind, State’s Attorney Matt Klahn said in an email Wednesday.

Klahn is the third of Lee County’s chief prosecutors to handle the case. Complicated medical issues were the major reason the case dragged on as long as it did. Tens of thousands of pages of medical records were produced, with nearly 30 medical and 30 more lay people on the witness list.

The abuse Colton sustained that day was not his first. Although those head injuries were the ultimate cause of his death 11 months later, the coroner ruled, it was not the only punishment the boy had suffered.

According to the probable cause affidavit filed by State Police investigators in support of Fassler’s arrest:

Hospital staff found “multiple areas of bruising and abrasions in various stages of healing” on Colton’s feet, legs, buttocks, back, arms, chest, neck and head.

“A history of abuse in the Fassler home appears to be evident,” the affidavit said, Fassler admitted to using cold showers to punish the 6-year-old for wetting his bed. A household member said Colton and his brother were kicked, were made to do jumping jacks, or to spend hours at a time standing in the hallway as punishment.

A neighbor told investigators that one of the boys was disciplined by being made to pull a single weed, then run, then repeat the process, for hours in extreme heat, the affidavit said.

Defense attorneys Paul Whitcombe and Robert Thompson were prepared to present evidence that the boys’ father, Andrew C. Fassler – who filed for divorce in February 2011 and was granted it 6 months later – was the family disciplinarian, and that he also physically abused Colton.

In fact, he was convicted Jan. 21, 2016, of felony battery for throwing his other son, then 10, down a flight of stairs in October 2009, breaking his arm.

He told investigators he was taking the boy up the stairs when the child was being “a little jerk” and pulled away, which caused him to fall, but the boy said his father threw him head-first down the stairs, “like Superman.” Neither of his parents believed he had hurt his arm, and he had to do jumping jacks to prove he was in pain, he said.

Had Tiffany Fassler gone to trial, the defense planned to introduce the theory that other injuries inflicted by her husband – who had “exclusive care and control” of Colton within 24 hours of the head injury – either caused or contributed to the boy’s death.

“We anticipated a large number of experts testifying for both the prosecution and defense, thereby creating a battle of the experts,” Klahn said. “We were confident in our case and the evidence, but the risk of acquittal is present in any criminal case, and the addition of complex medical evidence has to be considered.” 

The defense also could have asked Judge Jacquelyn Ackert to instruct the jury to consider convicting her of a lesser included charge of involuntary manslaughter.

If Ackert agreed, and Fassler was found guilty of that charge, she could have been sentenced to 3 to 14 years, but even at the maximum, she would have been eligible for day-for-day credit, meritorious good time and other credits. That means she could have served less than half of whatever sentence was meted, and far less than 11 years.

Finally, “Colton’s brothers had been through such trauma that we had to consider the impact a trial would have upon them and their family,” Klahn said.

“The responsibility of this decision is mine, however, we worked with the family in discussing the different options and challenges. Together, we agreed, that although a 13-year sentence was not perfect justice, this was a strong sentence, and that justice was served.”

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