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Panels of judges reviewing sentences of husband and wife sentenced to 30 years in child neglect case

Panels of judges reviewing sentences of husband and wife sentenced to 30 years in child neglect case
Paul and Melissa Trapani (Courtesy Photo)

A Westminster husband and wife, who were each sentenced to 30 years in prison for child neglect, asked the courts to reconsider their sentences.

Paul Trapani and Melissa Trapani were both sentenced on Aug. 2 to 5 years for each count of child neglect, one for each of their six children. Panels consisting of three judges from the Carroll County Circuit Court presided over the separate hearings to review the sentencing decision of Judge Thomas Stansfield.

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Paul Trapani’s hearing was held on March 22 and Melissa Tapani’s on Thursday. The defense and prosecution were in strong opposition during the hearings with both defense attorneys asking that their clients be placed on probation and the prosecutors asking the panel to uphold Stansfield’s sentence.

At the conclusion, each panel of judges said they would issue a written decision. Both were still pending as of 5 p.m. March 28.

Judson Larrimore, chief attorney with the Office of the Public Defender, said the 30-year sentence was more appropriate for a person who had been convicted of a violent felony that caused serious physical injury. He represented Paul Trapani during the hearing on March 22.

He described Trapani’s record as “essentially impeccable” with a 31-year career in the military. He said the sentence judged Trapani on “the one worst thing he’s ever done” and that on top of the court’s punishment, he had lost his job, his home, his reputation and his children.

In the Department of Corrections, Trapani is housed with violent gang members and finds it difficult to access mental health treatment or find employment, he said. Keeping his client in jail would do nothing to improve the lives of the children he said.

He asked for “a fair and proportional sentencing,” which is defined as probation to two years incarceration according to Maryland sentencing guidelines, he said.

William Welch III represented Melissa Trapani, 48, on March 28. He said that in issuing the sentence, Stansfield had based the sentencing on emotion when he departed from Maryland’s voluntary sentencing guidelines and had failed to consider mitigating circumstances.

He asked that the court order a suspended sentence and a period of probation, which places a significant restraint on a person’s liberty, he said. She would agree to an order not to contact the children.

He took issue with Stansfield’s finding that she played a “major role in the offense,” saying that that reasoning was more appropriate for a crime that involved a vast conspiracy.

Welch said Stansfield also cited that the level of harm caused by the crime was excessive, leading to his decision to impose a longer sentence.

Welch said the prosecution had not been able to prove any permanent injury to the children. The prosecution themselves had spoken in court about how they could not gather enough evidence of physical harm to prove a charge of child abuse.

Melissa Trapani chose not to exercise her right to speak during the hearing.

The prosecutors, Amy Blank Ocampo, chief of the Special Victim Unit of the Carroll County State’s Attorney’s Office and Ashley Pamer, senior assistant State’s Attorney, also served as the prosecutors in the sentencing hearing. They said Stanfield “got it right,” when he issued the sentence.

Ocampo repeated a sentiment she expressed during sentencing.

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“Any cell in the DOC is 1,000 times better than the conditions these children were forced to live in,” she said.

At each hearing, the prosecutors presented an abbreviated version of the evidence they had shown to Stansfield during sentencing.

They wanted the the panels of judges to see the same documents that Stansfield had seen when making his decision. This included a slideshow with pictures of the Trapanis’ home in November of 2014 when the children were taken by child protective services. The state’s slideshow was meant to illustrate the dangerously unsanitary conditions and conditions of neglect.

Ocampo also argued at both hearings that “30 years does not mean 30 years,” and that the Trapanis would be eligible for parole in about seven years.

Welch countered during Melissa Trapani’s hearing that there was no certainty of parole and that she could lawfully be held for the full 30 years because of the court’s sentence.

The adoptive father of three of the children delivered a victim impact statement as part of the prosecution’s presentation. He quoted from research he had done about toxic stress, and said that those symptoms showed themselves often in the children.

He asked the judges to have the same sympathy for the children that they would for a child in a wheelchair. His adoptive children are similarly reliant on therapy as a result of neglect, he said.

Both defense attorneys objected to him suggesting diagnoses of the children without being a recognized expert in the subject.

The two youngest children in the Trapani household, both whom displayed symptoms of autism, lived locked in a room with bars over the top half of the door and unsanitary conditions within, prosecutors said during the hearings. Siblings fed them through the door. Though the children were ages 5 and 7 in 2014, neither was enrolled in school or an early intervention program, according to the prosecutor’s presentation.

Older children with diagnosed ADHD and on the autism spectrum were caring for younger children with special needs, Ocampo said, making Stanfield’s reasoning that the victims had special circumstances, reasonable.

The state argued that both defendants engaged in purposeful behavior to perpetuate the neglect, with Melissa Trapani devising the plan for the barred door and Paul Trapani constructing it.

More than 60 professionals were called on to provide services to the children after they were taken from the home.

“This absolutely rises to the level of excessive harm to the victim,” Ocampo said during Paul Trapani’s hearing.

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