Friday, October 31, 2003
Murder indictments were handed down Thursday against the mother and stepfather of Kyshawn Punter, the 2-year-old whose brutal death has led to top-to-bottom overhaul of the state's child welfare agency.
Shaun Stewart, 25, was charged with murder and child cruelty, and DeKalb County prosecutors said they will seek the death penalty against him.
Shonderi Punter, 24, who was stationed at an Army base over the summer and had left Kyshawn in Stewart's care, was charged with felony murder and contributing to the deprivation of a minor.
Prosecutors say they do not believe she physically injured the boy, but they believe she contributed to his murder by leaving Kyshawn alone with Stewart, a man she knew to be an accused child abuser.
"She put that child back into the lion's den," said DeKalb District Attorney J. Tom Morgan.
Morgan said Stewart killed the boy by violently shaking him and striking his head with an object.
"This is not just murder. This is murder with torture," Morgan said.
Stewart and Punter have maintained their innocence. Stewart said the boy was injured during a playground incident, and Punter has said she saw no sign of abuse to her children.
Morgan, however, called Kyshawn's home "a torture chamber," and said the extreme nature of the crimes against the boy warranted the death penalty. Stewart burned Kyshawn on his genitals, thighs and buttocks, Morgan said. He also forced the boy to hold glass paperweights above his head for extended amounts of time as punishment, and sit for long periods on the toilet. If the boy disobeyed, he was beaten, said Morgan.
"Can you imagine --- his mother is away. He's with this man who is not working, and the man is just torturing this child," said Morgan.
Kyshawn Punter's death on Aug. 14 prompted a statewide shake-up in the state Division of Family and Children Services, including the ousting of the two top officials and two social workers as well as a decision to retrain all caseworkers.
DeKalb caseworkers twice returned Kyshawn to his home this summer, despite an allegation of child abuse against Stewart. State child welfare officials now acknowledge the child should not have been returned to the home.
Kyshawn was removed from the home June 27 after his stepfather spanked and beat him with his hands and a belt, according to a DeKalb arrest warrant.
Soon after, Shonderi Punter signed an agreement that stated Stewart would have no unsupervised contact with the boy, Morgan said.
She violated that agreement by placing Kyshawn back into Stewart's care when she returned to her military base, Morgan said.
Kyshawn was again removed July 11 when police arrested his stepfather on child cruelty charges. Stewart was bonded out by his wife, the boy's mother, July 13, officials said.
On this occasion, Shonderi Punter told the court she was transferring Kyshawn to the home of his grandmother in North Carolina, but she instead returned the boy to Stewart once again, said Morgan.
"We believe she should be held criminally responsible for the death of this child," said Morgan.
Morgan acknowledged that he had trouble finding a suitable charge for Punter under state law. Charging her would have been easier if Georgia had a child endangerment law, he said, since he believes she placed Kyshawn in danger by placing him in the care of an accused child abuser. Georgia is the only U.S. state without a child endangerment law.
The charge of felony murder is used when a murder takes place during the commission of a felony crime.
Prosecutors say Punter contributed to the boy's murder by leaving him with Stewart.
In that sense, she was contributing to the deprivation of the boy, Morgan said, meaning she was not providing him with the proper parental care.
Stewart, who was arrested in August, remains in DeKalb County Jail. Punter is stationed at Fort Bragg, and a warrant was issued for her arrest Thursday. Morgan said he hopes she will surrender to authorities within days, and, unless she fights extradition, be back in Georgia soon.
Stewart told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in August that he did not abuse the boy.
Stewart said the boy had injured himself on a DeKalb playground Aug. 8 while he was out of Stewart's sight. When Stewart found the boy, he was unconscious, but he later regained consciousness and felt better, Stewart said.
The boy died six days later.
The death penalty has been sought against parents in child murder cases before.
In February, a Covington man was sentenced to death for setting a fire that killed his three young children.
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