ST. LOUIS – In a ruling handed down this week, the Missouri Court of Appeals has rejected the efforts of Mark J. Dickerson of Ste. Genevieve to get his conviction and resulting life sentence for child abuse set aside.
Without comment, the appellate court denied Dickerson’s contention that he had ineffective assistance of counsel when he pleaded guilty to the child abuse charge related to the death of a 3-year-old girl in 2001. It was the finding of the appeals judges that Circuit Court Judge Sandy Martinez, who presided over Dickerson’s case, had not erred in her ruling that denied the defendant post-conviction relief.
Dickerson, 39, had entered an Alford plea of guilty to the child abuse case under the terms of a plea agreement that included dismissing another count of child abuse and also a charge of child endangerment. It was an “open plea” leaving the sentencing to the judge without any assurance of what that sentence would be.
When he pleaded guilty, Dickerson did not admit to any elements of the charge but indicated he believed Prosecuting Attorney Carl Kinsky would present evidence that would probably result in a conviction. The plea was entered shortly after Judge Martinez denied motions that would have limited the scope of evidence the prosecutor could present at the Dickerson’s trial.
The 3-year-old victim died in January of 2001 of injuries she suffered as punishment while being potty-trained, authorities said. The prosecution was prepared to present evidence of ongoing physical abuse of the child had the case gone to trial. That evidence was summarized by Kinsky when Dickerson entered his Alford plea and also at the time of sentencing.
Kinsky chose to file the charge of first-degree child abuse rather than second-degree murder. Other prosecutors have explained that the child abuse charge carries the same punishment range as second-degree murder. They further explained that it is easier for a prosecutor to prove the elements of a child abuse case and they do not have to prove the intent to kill element that is included in a murder charge.
The girl’s mother, 27-year-old Diane Seymour of Ste. Genevieve, was also charged in connection with her daughter’s death. She pleaded guilty to charges of child abuse and child endangerment and was sentenced to seven years in prison by Circuit Court Judge Kenneth W. Pratte. The judge denied requests that Seymour be granted probation or be reconsidered for probation within her first 120 days in prison.
The father of the victim claimed that there were repeated reports made to the Division of Family Services about the girl being physically abused before her death but that those complaints were never acted on. Another child’s death in the Springfield area at about the same time – when coupled with the one here – prompted a statewide investigation of the agency. As a result of the investigation many procedures have been changed and new laws enacted regarding the problems of child abuse.
This is the second time in two years that Dickerson has failed in his efforts to get the Court of Appeals to set aside felony convictions. Prior to his pleading guilty to the child abuse charge, a Ste. Genevieve County jury found him guilty of unrelated burglary and stealing charges.
Judge Martinez had sentenced Dickerson to a total of 40 years on the burglary and stealing charges. In that case, Dickerson also claimed ineffective assistance of counsel, but the ruling of Judge Martinez denying that claim was upheld by the Court of Appeals.
After his guilty plea to the child abuse charge, Dickerson waived his right to a new presentence investigation report. The judge then immediately imposed the life sentence on the new charge and ordered that it be served consecutive to the sentences for burglary and stealing.