Donald Scarlett guilty of killing toddler but system deserves blame, too, judge says

Unfortunately, instances of child abuse resulting in death happen far too frequently -- especially considering that "once" qualifies as "far too frequently." As a result, the sentencing of Donald Scarlett to more than four decades behind bars for the killing of 22-month-old Michael Harris was expected to be fairly routine. But no: The case took on more symbolic importance when Chris Melonakis, the judge in the case, not only ripped into Scarlett, but also decried the child welfare system in general for not preventing the tragedy.

Michael Harris's sad end was chronicled as part of October's "Failed to Death," one of the best and most passionate reports to appear in the Denver Post over the past year or so.

Michael Harris.
Michael Harris.

According to the Colorado Department of Human Services report on the incident (read it in its entirety below), the human services department in Adams County had an open case on Michael dated to May 2010. Why? Roseanna Key, the boy's mother, was said to smoke marijuana and her parents, who cared for the toddler and his three-year-old brother, used meth, drank alcohol and kept "a dirty home" rife with "domestic violence" at which the kids were "often neglected."

As such, the two children were placed in foster care for six months while Key engaged in "therapy, parenting classes, [a] psycho-sexual education group, [and] substance abuse treatment," as well as securing independent housing and employment. The kids were returned to her in December 2010, shortly after she'd begun her relationship with Scarlett.

Roseanna Key's mug shot.
Roseanna Key's mug shot.

Mere months later, on February 1, 2011, the department was contacted by the Brighton Police Department after Scarlett, Key's boyfriend, phoned 911 to report that Michael was not breathing. The boy was rushed to a hospital, where doctors discovered the boy had "a skull fracture, bruising in his left ear and behind the ear, bruising on his forehead, a large knot on his forehead, bruising or scrapes around the neck, and bruising on his chest and hand."

Other wounds: "a kidney injury, lacerated spleen, lacerated pancreas, occipital skull fracture, shot bowel and swelling on the skull." Understandably, and horrifically, he subsequently died.

What were the circumstances of the fatal beating? The Post reports that Key stood outside a door listening to Michael crying and screaming as Scarlett beat him until all noises ceased. She didn't check on him that night, and left him with Scarlett as caretaker when she went to work the next day.

Continue for more about the death of Michael Harris, including photos, a document and multiple videos.   As noted by 7News, Key pleaded guilty to negligent child abuse resulting in death and was sentenced to sixteen years in prison this past February.

Donald Scarlett at the sentencing hearing.
Donald Scarlett at the sentencing hearing.

That same month, Scarlett, who'd originally been charged with first-degree murder of a child by a person in a position of trust, was convicted of the same charge as Key, plus reckless manslaughter. But if he expected this week's sentencing -- to 42 years in prison -- to be pro forma, he was wrong.

Judge Melonakis didn't just fault Scarlett for Michael's shocking death. He also blistered human services personnel in Adams County for missing what he saw as red flags leading up to the brutal killing.

"Frankly, I think somebody should be taking them before a Grand Jury to try to find out if their conduct was reckless enough to merit criminal prosecution," Melonakis said from the bench, as captured in a video of his full statement below. "It was that serious."

Judge Chris Melonakis.
Judge Chris Melonakis.

A prime example: The judge said social workers had been apprised of a serious head injury experienced by Michael's brother just three days before the fatal beating but didn't bother to check his younger sibling to see if he, too, showed signs of abuse. If they had, Melonakis believes they would have found abuse indicators that would have led to both children being removed from the home -- and Michael would still be alive.

In the judge's view, those workers, their supervisors and the Adams County social services department as a whole "were directly, causally responsible for the death of this child.

"Michael Harris never had a chance in life. As a system, we had an obligation to give him a chance in life. It's appalling the level of neglect from the state. It transcends the level of human decency."

These remarks were so sweeping that afterward, the Adams County human services department issued a statement responding to them. It reads:

The death of a child is always a horrific and tragic occurrence. We are deeply saddened by Michael's death. We respectfully disagree with Judge Melonakis' statement and believe his comments are unfortunate. Child welfare cases like this one involve many professionals who must make decisions based upon the information available to them. Decisions regarding placement of children are made by a team, including the Juvenile Court. Due to issues of confidentiality, we are unable to provide further details about the case.

Look below to see Scarlett's mug shot, the 7News report about the sentencing, the unedited video of Melonakis's withering statements, and the aforementioned Adams County report.

Donald Scarlett.
Donald Scarlett.

Michael Harris Fatality Summary

More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "John Vigil pleads guilty to fatal child abuse case after years in mental hospital."

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