McFeely: At sentencing for Justis Burland's killer, reality hits hard
FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — In a small room occupied by five people, in the locked and eerily desolate Otter Tail County courthouse, the tragic saga of Justis Burland came to an end Monday, March 30.
It was heartbreaking. It was disturbing. It was depressing. It was revealing.
Justis was the 6-year-old boy who died in April 2018 after suffering ongoing abuse at the hands of Bobbie Christine Bishop and Walter Henry Wynhoff. The details have been well-documented . Justis and his twin brother Xavier were beaten and tortured by Bishop and Wynhoff for months. Belt whippings, beatings with planks of wood, scaldings, being held underwater in the bathtub, vicious spankings.
Justis' body was marked by open wounds, infections, bruisings, scabs and sepsis. A flesh-eating bacteria was present. His injuries, compiled over the six months he was with Bishop and Wynhoff, went untreated. They covered every part of his body.
Wynhoff pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter last year and is serving a four-year prison sentence.
Otter Tail County Attorney Michelle Eldien told the court Monday that the medical examiner who performed the boy's autopsy said the case was so uncommon, including the apparent stress-induced hair loss suffered by Justis, that he likened it to the suffering of a concentration camp prisoner.
That information was revealed at Bishop's sentencing, which took place in the interactive television room on the third floor of the grand old county courthouse. Because normality has been shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, the century-old building was void of activity and empty but for a handful of people Monday morning. Usually a bustling place with Otter Tail County residents and employees coming and going, the stark stillness inside the classically designed stone and marble building made the day otherwordly anyway. Like a spooky movie.
It was made moreso by the happenings inside the room in which Bishop was sentenced. I was one of the five people in attendance, granted access by the state court administrator's office. The sentencing was presided over by District Court Judge Barbara Hanson, who was flanked on the bench by a court reporter and a clerk. Bishop's defense attorney, Brian Geis, sat at a table in front of Hanson. I sat in the back of the room, 10 feet behind Geis, in one of the 12 chairs meant for the public.
Bishop joined the proceedings via video feed from the county jail. Eldien was patched in by telephone and could be heard over a speaker.
It was my first sentencing. I was assigned to cover it by my editors because I'd closely followed and written about the Burland case. For somebody who has spent a 30-year media career covering sports, politics, government and feature news, this experience was a shock.
This wasn't a TV courtroom drama. This was real life, revealing what a real-life person who pleaded guilty to killing a child by beating him looked and sounded like. There was nothing dramatic or glamorous about it. It was disturbing and, for a rookie in such settings, uncomfortable.
Whatever preconceived notions I had of the way Bishop was going to look, act and sound, were blown away when she appeared on the television monitors in the courtroom, escorted by a guard to sit in a plastic chair behind a table facing a camera. Bishop looked like a slight woman with long brown braids resting down the front of her orange jumpsuit.
She began rocking forward and back in the chair as soon as she sat, her hands clasped in front of her sternum while she appeared to be looking down at the table. She looked nervous, unsettled. In the few words she said in response to Hanson's questions early in the proceedings, Bishop's voice sounded high-pitched and almost child-like.
What did I expect? Maybe somebody more calculating and emboldened. To do the things that were done to Justis would take somebody big and frightening, right? Bishop looked small and frightened.
Given the chance to make a statement before being sentenced, Bishop went on an uninterrupted rant for close to 10 minutes — her voice rising and becoming more agitated at times — during which she blamed Justis' and Xavier's family for the children's problems, saying the children had been abused prior to them coming to Fergus Falls and that the boys were wearing diapers despite being 6 years old when they were dropped off by their grandmother in August 2017.
Bishop called Eldien a liar, admitted abusing the boys but said it wasn't her fault, said Justis and Xavier hurt themselves at times, said Justis pulled out his own hair, claimed the boys were sexually abused by their family, said they sexually molested themselves and each other, said she wanted to get the children help but didn't know how.
Bishop continued to rock rapidly in her chair during the statement, sobbing most of the time and sometimes waving her arms. She wiped away tears with a white tissue.
She claimed her biggest fault was that she wasn't a mother and because of that didn't know how to care for children.
"I couldn't help them. I didn't know how. I didn't know how to help them," she said. "I spanked them. I didn't know what else to do."
"I'm not a bad person. I'm not a bad mom. I made mistakes," she said another time.
Those in the courtroom watching Bishop on the monitors seemed uncomfortable with her monologue, sometimes looking down at papers in front of them or otherwise averting their eyes.
At the end of her statement, Bishop asked her defense attorney to read a note she'd written, which he had to retrieve from his office. Geis read it aloud, struggling at times because Bishop had handwritten it.
While she was took "full responsibility for my regretful actions," Bishop wrote that she was "scared and confused for I have never had a child of my own so I didn't know what to do sometimes."
Hanson, the judge, was having none of it. After Bishop declined to add anything to her statement, Hanson quickly rebuked the idea Bishop was a victim or powerless to help the children. The judge said Bishop was experienced in how to seek financial and other assistance from both Otter Tail County and the state Department of Human Services. Hanson went so far as to point to a complicated rental assistance case Bishop navigated — for her benefit — that the judge said would've impressed some attorneys.
Hanson brushed off each of Bishop's excuses and sentenced her to 180 months in prison, 30 months above the recommendation Eldien made earlier in the proceeding. Geis had asked for 128 months. Hanson said Bishop would serve 10 years in prison followed by five years of supervised release.
Nobody from his family attended the sentencing and only one victim impact statement was read on his behalf. It came from Xavier, who was in the custody of social services for a long period after Justis' death and is apparently now in the process of being adopted. The statement included information taken from some of Xavier's psychotherapy sessions, when he recounted some of the abuse Bishop heaped on the brothers.
"I want Bobbie to go to jail because she hit me and my brother. She killed my brother Justis," the statement read.
The case was closed. I walked through the deserted old courthouse and out the front door into a perfect spring day.
The contrast was not lost on me.