Even Justin Crouse’s defense attorney agreed that he lacked remorse for killing his girlfriend’s 3-year-old son in March.
So it was perhaps no surprise that Crouse was sentenced Friday morning to 21 years in prison for the death of Gage Seneca in his mother’s home on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation.
The child died from a head injury after Crouse found the toddler awake and walking around the house in the wee hours of March 5 and then hit him.
Crouse, 30, had pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter.
In addition to the prison term, State Supreme Court Justice Penny M. Wolfgang sentenced Crouse to five years of post-release supervision.
“The one thing that we must say, and repeat, no matter how many times you say ... this was an accident ... it was not an accident,” Wolfgang said.
“I think you know by now physical violence is not an acceptable way of dealing with conflicts,” the judge continued. “You need to be away from society for a significant period of time to learn this ... lesson.”
When the judge asked Crouse if he wanted to say anything before sentencing, he said, “No.”
But moments earlier, defense attorney Emily P. Trott agreed with a probation report about Crouse’s lack of remorse for what he had done.
“During the six to eight months that I represented Mr. Crouse, I have seen very little remorse for the action,” Trott said.
“During the pre-sentence report, it was clear to me, finally, that Mr. Crouse understood what he did. It was painfully clear to me that he also loved all of these children that he has gotten to know,” Trott said.
Gage Seneca was the son of Tashia Seneca, who also has an older son and daughter. Crouse, an unemployed construction worker, was living with Seneca and her children in her Sulphur Springs Road home when Gage was killed. After hitting Gage, Crouse picked him up and put him back in the play tent in which the boy slept since making the transition from a crib weeks earlier.
Tashia Seneca discovered her son’s lifeless body in the tent when she entered his room several hours later. She was among family members who filled the courtroom gallery Friday morning, when Gage’s uncle spoke on behalf of the family.
“This heinous and despicable act has left a great void in our family,” said Nate John, who paused before speaking to compose himself.
“All the things that we were supposed to do with him, we can’t do anymore,” John said. “Sitting around the campfire ... fishing. It’s all gone now.”
His voice trembled as he spoke, while others in the gallery wept.
“Now we have to deal with this from past, present and future. We’ll do our best to carry on, though.”
In his comments before sentencing, prosecutor James F. Bargnesi, head of the Homicide Bureau in the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, said: “This was what only can be described as a horrific and very difficult case by its nature and circumstances.”
Bargnesi noted that the plea bargain of the manslaughter charge – as opposed to the murder and manslaughter charges Crouse originally faced – was accepted with a sentence ranging from 20 to 25 years.
It was Bargnesi who first referred to the probation officer’s comments regarding Crouse’s “limited remorse.”
According to Crouse’s attorney, the probation report indicated he had been “raised with a certain degree of violence in his life.”
Trott said she thinks it played a major role in how he responded to a child.
“My client chose to spare the family the further pain of a trial,” Trott said, referring to his agreement in taking the plea.
At least six law enforcement officers stood by during the proceeding, in case they were needed to maintain order. As Crouse was led out of the courtroom, the victim’s mother erupted in sobs.
Tashia Seneca was surrounded by family, who led her to the elevator and out of the building. Minutes later, several members of the group – who had parked in a nearby lot – had donned white T-shirts and taken up a banner stating: “United Against Child Abuse ... in memory of Gage Martin Seneca."
They were last seen walking silently back up Delaware Avenue.