Speaking via Skype, Lori Edwards, the mother of Avery Edwards, had pointed words for Dr. Trung Tran prior to his sentencing Friday on a charge of obstructing an officer investigating the boyís death.
7/15/2019 5:00:00 PM Tran to serve 12 days for obstructing
officer investigating son's death
Heather Schaefer and Jamie Taylor Of the River News
A former Rhinelander physician is serving a 12-day jail sentence for withholding information from local police during the investigation into the death of his toddler son back in April 2017.
Dr. Trung T. Tran, 42, was sentenced Friday after pleading guilty to a single misdemeanor count of obstructing an officer. He was set to stand trial in September on two felony counts - child abuse (fail/prevent bodily harm and neglecting a child (consequence is death) - however a plea deal was brokered after the state determined it could not prove all of the elements necessary to secure convictions on the felony charges. If convicted of the original charges, Tran faced a maximum sentence of 31 years in prison.
According to court records, Avery James Edwards, 20 months, Dr. Tran's son from a previous relationship, became unresponsive on April 14, 2017 while staying in the home of his father and stepmother, Ellen Tran, in Newbold on a court-ordered visitation.
He died several hours later at a hospital in Marshfield.
Two days later, Ellen Tran was charged with second-degree reckless homicide. The charge was later amended to first-degree reckless homicide.
In September 2017, Oneida County district attorney Mike Schiek charged Dr. Tran with child abuse (failure to act to prevent great bodily harm) and neglecting a child (consequence is death), both felonies. In the criminal complaint, Schiek accused Dr. Tran of failing to protect his son from Ellen Tran, who had expressed animosity toward the boy.
Tran challenged the original charges and won a victory in November 2017 when his attorney successfully argued there was insufficient evidence in the complaint to show his client was aware of any prior "great" bodily harm to Avery Edwards at the hands of Ellen Tran.
Judge Michael Bloom dismissed the "failure to act" charge on that basis but the state responded by filing a slightly different charge - failure to act to prevent "bodily harm" which required the state to prove only that Dr. Tran knew or believed the boy had suffered previous "bodily harm" as opposed to "great bodily harm' at Ellen's hands.
The defense challenged the new charge as well but the motion was denied.
Ellen Tran was convicted of first-degree reckless homicide on Oct. 25, 2018, following a four-day trial in which the state argued she caused Avery to suffer fatal brain trauma while bathing him in a shower. Texts and emails from Dr. Tran to Ellen's parents and between the couple, introduced during the trial, showed that she resented the child because she saw him as a threat to the happy family she had hoped to have.
Judge Patrick O'Melia sentenced her to 15 years initial confinement followed by seven years extended supervision.
According to a sentencing memorandum filed by Dr. Tran's attorneys, the state and defense agreed to stipulate that Dr. Tran obstructed an officer when he lied to Det. Sgt. Chad Wanta in the beginning of the investigation into Avery's death.
"While Trung initially told Detective Wanta he had no knowledge of Ellen's feelings towards Avery, text messages taken from Ellen's phone show otherwise. This constitutes a basis for obstructing an officer," the memorandum states.
In explaining the plea deal in court Friday, Schiek stated that he did not believe he could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Dr. Tran intentionally neglected Avery.
Schiek noted testimony from Ellen's son from a previous relationship, offered during her trial, that the family, including Dr. Tran, was happily playing together before the doctor left that night for a shift at the hospital.
"When Trung left, they were a happy family. There was nothing that would have put the defendant on notice that something was going to happen," the prosecutor said.
Schiek also cited Ellen's son testimony that Avery was acting normally throughout the evening but was markedly different after being in the bathroom with Ellen.
Ultimately, Schiek said the plea deal saves Avery's mother, Lori Edwards, from the ordeal of a second trial and the time in jail, while brief, will be difficult for Tran.
"For someone in his position, spending one night in jail is significant," Schiek said. "There's no magic number 5, 10, 30 days, but knowing that it's going to bother and annoy him is an aspect of punishment."
In arguing for a five-day jail sentence, defense attorney Jason Luczak recounted the "collateral consequences" Tran has experienced as a result of this case.
Tran lost his job, "his family as he knew it" and his reputation, his attorney said.
In addition, Tran does not have full custody of the daughter he shares with Ellen, his medical license is in jeopardy and his life savings is gone, Luczak added, stressing that Tran could not have known what would happen after he left his house on April 14.
"The facts make it very clear that when he left for work there was no sign that anything like this would occur," Luczak stressed.
Luczak also argued the characterizations of Dr. Tran as unfeeling are false.
"The perception of Dr. Tran is different than the reality," the attorney said. "He has had to be silent because of how the system works. He couldn't participate in Ellen's trial, couldn't speak out in any way, but I can tell you he has been deeply hurt by what Ellen did to his son."
Given his chance to speak, Tran expressed anger over being judged by people who have never met him. He said he's been cast as a terrible father and husband because he chose not to express his grief publicly. He also stressed that he trusted Ellen to take care of the children that night and she betrayed him.
"My son died and the person convicted of his death was someone I loved and wrongly trusted with everything I held precious at the time," he said. "It wasn't money or material belongings that were precious to me, it was my family living in my home that night."
"I wrongly stood by my ex-wife (the couple divorced last summer) initially because I didn't think she was capable of doing something so unspeakable as to harm a defenseless toddler," he added. "My son died. My marriage was destroyed, financially I'm ruined and I'm emotionally devastated."
Tran said he decided to take the plea deal so that he can start to move on with his life.
"It's been a long 27 months," he said.
Appearing via Skype, Lori Edwards made it clear she holds Dr. Tran responsible for the death of her son.
She pointedly referred to Avery as her son as, in her estimation, Dr. Tran was never a father to the boy. (The two had very limited contact during the boy's short life).
She claimed Tran's only focus in life is making money and noted he has aggressively avoided paying child support.
"For some reason you felt you were above the laws that say that you are just as financially responsible for the children you create as their mothers are," she said.
"You are the reason a sweet innocent little boy is dead," she continued. "You're the reason Avery never got to grow up. Ellen may have been the one who killed my sweet baby but you are the one who allowed her to."
"You fought for custody of him because you didn't want to pay child support only to put him in the care of someone who openly hated him," she said. "He was the happiest little boy ever and you got him killed."
Edwards finished her statement with a plea that Avery's death will haunt Tran for the rest of his days.
"I hope the rest of your life is pure hell and this follows you wherever you go," she said. "I hope you are never able to outrun it ... I hope you rot in hell."
Before pronouncing sentence, Bloom noted that he was sentencing Tran for not being truthful with Wanta regarding Ellen's animosity toward Avery and nothing else. He noted that Tran should have known better than to withhold that information and this is a case where some jail time is appropriate. The maximum sentence available was nine months in jail, however Bloom chose to take the state's recommendation of 14 days. Earlier in the hearing, Bloom explained his decision to accept the plea agreement - he had the authority to reject it - citing the same concerns Schiek articulated regarding proving all of the elements of the offenses in question, as well as the broad authority given to prosecutors to make plea decisions.
At the end of his remarks, Bloom mentioned a case often characterized as a miscarriage of justice, O.J. Simpson's acquittal for the murder of his former wife and her friend, as well as Simpson's subsequent conviction and prison term for armed robbery some years later. The judge noted that Simpson's sentencing in the armed robbery case was severe and the perception of many was that he "got nailed" because he had gotten away with murder.
"I tend to disagree with that," the judge said. "What I think is this - here was a man who got a second shot at life and didn't have the humility to recognize it. I encourage you, Dr. Tran, not to make the same mistake."
Tran was given credit for two days already served and was to report to the county jail by 8 p.m. Friday.
Probation was not ordered as Tran no longer resides in Wisconsin.
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