The Arizona Republic, January 30, 1998
Discipline with belt has father facing jail
By Brent Whiting
PEORIA - He didn't spare the rod when he disciplined his child. Now a Peoria father finds himself in legal hot water for striking his daughter with a leather belt.
He is awaiting trial for aggravated assault, a charge that tests the legal limit for parents in using physical punishment on their children.
For their part, Bill Sherrill, 48, and his daughter Sabrina, 14, say that police, prosecutors and the courts have badly overreacted.
"This is an atrocity," Sherrill said. "The whole thing is just totally blown out of proportion."
Sabrina Sherrill, an eighth-grader at Alta Loma Elementary School, agrees with her father.
"I think this is dumb," she said.
Sherrill, an electronics repairman and retired Army master sergeant, is free on $16,000 bail. No trial date has been set. The case was sent to Maricopa County Superior Court after Lex Anderson, the Peoria justice of the peace, reviewed the evidence and agreed with prosecutors that Sherrill should stand trial.
"I don't think we're going to find a single judge that would agree that use of a belt would be a necessary sort of punishment tool," Anderson told Sherrill and his Glendale lawyer, Richard Coffinger, during a Nov. 24 hearing. Coffinger told Anderson that when he was a boy, his father used a belt on him for punishment but police never were called. "Mr. Coffinger, maybe it's time for you to update your philosophy and join the '90s," Anderson replied. "In today's society, we have advanced beyond that."
Now pending is a motion by Coffinger asking Judge Peter D'Angelo of Maricopa County Superior Court to throw out the case. The motion is set for argument Feb. 20. Coffinger told D'Angelo, among other things, that Anderson erroneously has ruled that all belt-spanking by a parent of a minor is illegal.
Under Arizona law, Sherrill committed no crime because the use of physical force upon Sabrina was reasonable, Coffinger said. In addition, it was intended to maintain household discipline and to protect another daughter from physical harm, he said. Prosecutors have yet to respond to the motion. Bill FitzGerald, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Superior Court, said he cannot discuss pending cases. During an interview last week MG cq Jan. 23 MGat Coffinger's office, Sabrina Sherrill said she was acting out of line and deserved to be punished when her father intervened to break up a quarrel with her older sister.
She said her father took a belt and struck her five times, or less, but doesn't believe he used any undue force with the blows.
"It hurt a little bit, but not much," Sabrina said. "It got my attention."
Sherrill said the incident marks the only time he has resorted to such discipline with his children. The father of three daughters, ages 11 to 17, Sherrill said his usual form of punishment is to deprive them of privileges, such as use as the telephone. However, he thinks he was justified in using a belt.
Sherrill explained the incident occurred Nov. 17 when Sabrina and her older sister, Jennifer, were engaged in a heated argument. He said he was afraid Sabrina was going to take a broom and whack her pregnant sister, possibly injuring Jennifer and her unborn child.
"That's when I took out the belt," Sherrill said. "I wasn't angry or anything. It was just more in fear, more an act of love."
He said he administered a few "soft blows" on Sabrina, never intending to cause physical harm.
Neighbors heard a commotion and called Peoria police to his home in the 9000 block of West Mountain View Road, resulting in his arrest.
Investigators took photographs of Sabrina that show some reddening on an arm and leg, allegedly caused by the blows. Sherrill said he considers the aggravated assault charge unjustified. He said he will not accept any plea-bargain offers and will go to trial, if necessary, in an attempt to clear himself of the charge.
"I don't want any deals," Sherrill said. "This shouldn't have been brought up in the first place."
Sherrill was charged with an assault violation that can be treated by the court as a felony or misdemeanor. If convicted of either, Sherrill can be sentenced to a minimum of probation. If found guilty of a felony, he can be sent to prison for a maximum of two years. If convicted of a misdemeanor, he can be sent to jail for a maximum of six months. ***
Brent Whiting can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 1-602-444-7119.
Copyright, The Arizona Republic