CONROE, Texas (AP) – Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson arrived in a Texas courtroom Wednesday to face a charge of felony child abuse for using a wooden switch to discipline his 4-year-old son earlier this year.
Accompanied by his wife and attorney, Peterson exited a black Cadillac Escalade outside the suburban Houston courthouse and was asked what he expected during his appearance.
“I don’t know. We shall see,” he said.
Nearby was a person wearing a wildcat costume and holding a sign that said “Free AP” in sparkling letters, prompting a chuckle from Peterson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin. Several women stood near the courthouse entrance shrieking and talking about how handsome Peterson looked after he entered the building.
Peterson, who was put on paid leave by the Vikings under a special roster exemption from the NFL commissioner, was expected to plead not guilty during his first court appearance since being indicted last month. If convicted, Peterson faces up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine in a case that surfaced as the NFL grapples with several players facing domestic violence allegations.
Peterson has said he never intended to harm his son and was only disciplining him in the same way he had been as a child growing up in East Texas.
Corporal punishment is legal in every U.S. state. Should Peterson’s case go to trial, legal experts say, the final determination of what is reasonable discipline will be based on the standards found in the local community – and Texas law offers no definition of what that is. It says the use of non-deadly force against someone younger than 18 is justified if a parent or guardian “reasonably believes the force is necessary to discipline the child or to safeguard or promote his welfare.”
The Texas Attorney General’s Office notes that belts and brushes “are accepted by many as legitimate disciplinary tools, but “electrical or phone cords, boards, yardsticks, ropes, shoes, and wires are likely to be considered instruments of abuse.”
F. Scott McCown, director of the Children’s Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law that represents children in abuse and neglect cases, said people can have abstract debates about what is reasonable but they tend to come to a consensus when looking at a specific case.
Some of the factors that tend to be used to decide whether corporal punishment was unreasonable include whether a child needed medical attention and if the disciplining left visible marks and bruises, McCown said.
According to court records, Peterson’s son suffered cuts, marks and bruising to his thighs, back and on one of his testicles.
If Peterson’s case goes to trial, prosecutors and defense attorneys will be picking jurors in a county with conservative beliefs and one that has also banned corporal punishment in its largest school district. E. Tay Bond, an attorney who has worked in Montgomery County for 16 years, said the potential jury pool in the Peterson case will likely not be economically or racially diverse.
Because jurors in are summoned via email, the jury pool will be made up of individuals with a higher socio-economic status, who tend to be more conservative, Bond said.
“People will still discipline their children … As long as it’s appropriate and not excessive, it’s not a crime,” Wilke said.
It’s unclear how many cases involving abuse claims stemming from corporal punishment are dealt with either by Texas courts or CPS. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, CPS’s parent agency, doesn’t keep statistics detailing whether an abuse case involved corporal punishment. McCown said that in most of the cases his clinic has handled, usually parents do not end up going to jail.
Lucy Wilke, a prosecutor in Kerr County for 17 1/2 years, recalled a case in 2010 in which an 11-year-old boy was hit nearly 20 times with a three-foot piece of looped wire by his father for not taking out the trash.
“This was just excessive. This was abuse and not corporal punishment,” said Wilke, who helped convict the Kerrville, Texas, man on a charge of injury to a child.
David Dill was sentenced to four years in prison after prosecutors accused him of binding his son’s hands, feet and mouth with duct tape and then using the looped wire to hit the boy.
“It was so severe that I really wasn’t concerned if some jurors might find it appropriate,” Wilke said.
The range of punishment for injury to a child charge depends on the defendant’s intent. Peterson is accused of injuring his son through his reckless actions, while Dill was accused of intentionally or knowingly causing injury to his child. He faced up to 10 years in prison.
In court documents, Dill denied doing anything wrong. Like Peterson, Dill said he disciplined his son similar to how he had been punished as a child.