No justice: Ex-police chief gets 50 days in prison for abusing his four adopted children

Cheryle and Richard Burton

What started as a tragically common report of a missing teenager, turned out to be a far more sinister saga with a conclusion so bereft of justice, it attests to all but irrefutable proof of law enforcement impunity. In case after case, incidents of undeniable police brutality and murder become opportunities for public victim-blaming; and when no punishment is wrought on the perpetrators, that blame turns to self-righteous indignation. Because law enforcement is infallible, right?

A 13-year-old boy was reported missing the evening of November 5, 2012 in Habersham County Georgia, but when located the following morning, authorities quickly realized he wasn't another disgruntled runaway. Sheriff Joey Terrell discovered marks and bruising on the boy's neck and back inconsistent with spending one night outdoors, and the teen subsequently explained they were the result of being at home. After child welfare advocates interviewed the boy, authorities were dispatched to arrest his mother, father, and 17-year-old sister.

explained the Sheriff, and so Jamie Lynn Burton was "charged with aggravated assault, cruelty to children in the second degree and terroristic threats and acts." Richard Scott Burton, his father, who was 49 at the time, was initially charged with four counts of cruelty to children in the second degree and obstruction, and his mother Cheryle Lynn Burton, 50 at the time of arrest, faced four counts of cruelty to children in the second degree as well as influencing a witness. All other siblings were then placed in state custody with the help of the Dept of Children and Family Services. As more sickening details emerged, it quickly became apparent the initial charges were wholly inadequate.

"As they went through counseling, they opened up," Terrell said. Indeed they did.

In 2004, the Burtons adopted the boy, his brother, and their two sisters, who ranged in age from two to eight, when their birth mother lost parental rights; but the adoption was far from a blessing. As one of the boys explained, "It was good at first but something changed."

There were years of neglect, violence, and cruelty in the Burton household, including sexual abuse by the father. Locked in a bedroom, dark from boards nailed to the windows, the siblings were underfed — as one boy explained, "We had to eat noodles and they would put leftover food that they didn't want into our pot of noodles...We didn't have warm food, it was cold from the refrigerator." Beatings were a frequent occurrence, too, "Getting hit in the head with a wooden paddle, being swung around the room, throwing us on the walls we had to stand upside down on the corner on our heads."

Charges mounted, and eventually the adoptive parents faced 28 counts of first degree child cruelty. Richard, however, was additionally charged with child molestation, aggravated child molestation, and two counts of sodomy/aggravated sodomy.

By all accounts, these siblings, who are now 13- to 19-years-old, deserve justice. It would seem spending one's youth confined to a bedroom and subject to such cruel and unforgiving abuse demands some sort of reprisal. But this is where the stunning lack of law enforcement accountability, as testament to a systemic epidemic, becomes glaringly apparent.

Richard Scott Burton is the former police chief of Mt. Airy — a position actively held while 'allegedly' inflicting cruel abuse on children in his care. And it was this former job that led to what certainly amounts to a gross miscarriage of justice for the four teens.

As the trial was about to begin, the couple copped deals that belie the magnitude and significance of what allegedly occurred. In exchange for pleading guilty to just three counts of second degree child cruelty, all other charges, including aggravated molestation and sodomy, were dropped. And their sentence? Each received ten years, to be served by 25 consecutive weekends in jail (50 days), followed by felony probation, and a $10,000 fine. Neither will have a felony on their record nor will they be listed as sex offenders.

So, how did this happen? Chief Assistant District Attorney Eddie Staples said it was for the good of the children, of course. "The reason is it provides finality and admission of wrongdoing that I think is beneficial for the children involved without them having to go through trial discussing their life in public." And, besides, a jury trial would have been lengthy:

But Staples also admitted that the former police chief's connections came into consideration, "The witness list for the defense included law enforcement officers from this community. Those are the people we go into court everyday and tell the jurors, 'These are credible people.' And they were going to come and testify to Richard Burton particularly, but the Burtons' good character."

And that, in no uncertain terms, encapsulates every nuance and flagrant malfunction of the criminal justice system in this country — the DA who should hold victims' justice as the utmost priority, caving to a former head of law enforcement whose police buddies will unquestioningly speak to his character, and in whom the people have inherent trust, because: The Thin Blue Line.

As to be expected, the couple deny the allegations. Chief Public Defender Drew Powell, who represented Richard Burton said, Cheryle Burton's attorney, Elizabeth Pendleton, says the abuse actually occurred at the hands of their birth mother,

If anything can be satisfactory in this case, it is found in the former victims' happiness. All four teens have since been adopted by Fran Chastain, and have a new family with 11 other adoptive siblings, where they live on 13 acres of farmland in the same county where they had lived with the Burtons. She is stupefied by the sentence, "I think it's way too light. We feel like this is just sending this wrong message."

It could be argued that the message is precisely the one intended: the job that grants a badge and gun, comes complete with a pass to get away with anything the bearer chooses.