McFeely: Is four years in prison justice when a child dies?

Otter Tail County man's sentence based on his role as a passive bystander who didn't do anything to stop beatings of Justis Burland

Justis Rae Burland died in April 2018 in Fergus Falls, Minn., after, according to court documents, he was beaten and tortured for months.

Walter Wynhoff will be out of prison in less than three years for his role in Justis Burland's death, which came after months of beatings and torture.

Justis was 6 years old at the time of his death in April 2018 , unable to stop the beatings with a stick, the scaldings with hot water, having hair torn from his head.

He was 6, so he couldn't bring himself to a hospital to get care for the massive infections ravaging his body.

He was 6, so he wasn't able to get help for the bruises covering his body (including his genitals), the sores, the cuts, the scratches.

By the time Justis was taken to Lake Region Hospital in Fergus Falls, Minn., it was too late. He was unresponsive, his tiny body unable to handle the physical abuse it had endured for so long. Justis was in such rough shape that veteran hospital staff were shaken when they saw his injuries.


Wynhoff and his girlfriend, Bobbie Bishop, were Justis' caretakers, if that word even applies in this case. The boy and his twin brother, Xavier, were given to the couple by the children's grandmother, who could no longer handle them. Justis' and Xavier's lives had been rough from the start. They'd been born to a troubled mother in Washington state who struggled with homelessness. They'd shuttled from person to person, family to family. They finally ended up in Otter Tail County with Bishop and Wynhoff , who were described as "family friends" of the children's grandmother.

Bishop and Wynhoff were originally charged by Otter Tail County Attorney Michelle Eldien with second-degree murder, manslaughter and malicious punishment. Wynhoff made a plea bargain with the prosecution, pleading guilty to second-degree manslaughter and agreeing to testify against Bishop if her case goes to trial.


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That's still an "if." Bishop awaits a mental health evaluation and might go on trial to face the murder charge. She'd face up to 40 years in prison if found guilty of second-degree murder.
Eldien said Bishop was the main abuser, that Wynhoff was mostly just a bystander who didn't step in to help the child. Hence the plea down to second-degree manslaughter.

So Wynhoff will be out of prison in less than three years, having already served almost 400 days of the four-year sentence he was given earlier this week.

A 6-year-old boy is dead after being viciously beaten for months. He couldn't stop the torture and beatings . He couldn't get help for himself. He couldn't bring himself to the hospital. Wynhoff could have saved Justis, but chose not to. Now Wynhoff will be freed from prison in early 2022.

Is that justice?

Eldien thinks so. She said Wynhoff showed culpable negligence in Justis' death by not doing anything to stop the beatings, part of the definition of second-degree manslaughter. Eldien said Wynhoff was guilty of knowing about the abuse, but not doing anything to stop it.


bishop wynhoff.jpg
Bobbie Bishop, left, and Walter Wynhoff of Fergus Falls, Minn., were charged in April 2018 in the death of 6-year-old Justis Burland. Wynhoff was sentenced to four years in prison on second-degree manslaughter charges for his role in the death. Bishop will undergo a mental-health evaluation and could face murder charges.

In other words, the prosecutor believes Wynhoff's main crime is that he stood idly by and ignored Bishop's beatings and torture of a defenseless 6-year-old. And, under Minnesota sentencing guidelines, second-degree manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of not more than 10 years in prison. Because he agreed to testify against Bishop, Wynhoff got significantly less than the maximum.

"She was the main player," Eldien said.

That might be true. But it is also true Wynhoff could've prevented the abuse if he so decided. He could've stepped in and defended the children, he could've called the police, he could've taken them to social services. Wynhoff could've done any number of things to protect Justis and he chose to do nothing.

Bishop regularly whipped Justis with a belt, including the buckle. Court documents say Justis would urinate himself after being whipped. The whippings are just one of the things Wynhoff failed to stop. Bishop also duct-taped Justis to a wall to restrain him, which Wynhoff admitted he observed.

Wynhoff walked away after seeing Bishop restrain the child with tape.

Wynhoff also "disciplined" Justis with his own hands, according to court documents. Asked by Bishop to help with Justis' discipline, Wynhoff went to the boy's room. He returned and told Bishop, "I've never been so mad at a child before and I slapped him."


Court documents say Bishop went to check on Justis "and observed that he had a red mark on the left side of his face and he was 'groggy' and had slurred speech. He then handed her his tooth, and she saw a broken piece of a 1-by-1-inch board laying on the bed next to him. Officers later located two wood pieces with a red-like substance that field tested for blood."

Wynhoff will be out of prison in less than three years.

Is that justice?

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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