Father acquitted of abusing son
By CARY DAVIS
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2001
NEW PORT RICHEY -- Arrested in 1999 on charges that he had broken his 3-year-old son's leg in a rage, Michael Mendenhall feared that he would lose his family and his freedom.
But Mendenhall's wife stood by him, even after the state Department of Children and Families ordered him to find another place to live for a year.
On Thursday, to the astonishment of prosecutors, Mendenhall was acquitted of aggravated child abuse, a felony that carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
"I've maintained my innocence the entire time," a red-eyed Mendenhall, 26, said after the verdict. "Now I stand here an innocent man."
Mendenhall and his son, Elijah, were alone in the family's Hudson home on Jan. 9, 1999, when the boy's leg was broken.
Mendenhall told investigators at the time that he was "disappointed and frustrated" with Elijah because the boy had soiled his pants. "I scolded the child, but I did not strike him," Mendenhall told Pasco County Sheriff's Office investigators.
Mendenhall testified at the trial that the injury most likely happened when he was pulling off his son's soiled pants. The pants got caught around Elijah's ankles and could have bent the boy's leg to the breaking point, Mendenhall said.
To support Mendenhall's claim, the defense suggested that Elijah suffers from a congenital disease that renders his bones brittle. Mendenhall "didn't do anything wrong," defense attorney Peter Wansboro told jurors Thursday. "It was the action of a caring father."
Prosecutors said Mendenhall's account of the incident failed to explain how the boy broke his femur, the strongest bone in the human body, and not his ankle. They suggested that the injury, given the large bruise on the boy's thigh, was more likely the result of a violent blow from Mendenhall.
After the four-day trial, jurors took just more than two hours to reach the not-guilty verdict. They declined to discuss their decision with a Times reporter as they left the courthouse.
"It's easily the most unbelievable verdict I've had as a prosecutor," said Assistant State Attorney Tom Stathopoulos.
Mendenhall, who works as a tile installer and has completed state-ordered anger management counseling, returned to live with his wife, Leah, and Elijah a year ago and no longer is under the supervision of child welfare workers.
"We are still a family," Mendenhall said.
- Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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