WINCHESTER — Nicholas Merrill Hamman said every day he regrets shaking his baby, which caused the boy permanent blindness and brain damage.
“To this day, I still agonize how I could have hurt the most precious person in my life. I’m not sure I can ever forgive myself,” Hamman told Judge Alexander R. Iden before he was sentenced on Thursday in Frederick County Circuit Court. “This whole ordeal is beyond tragic. I wish this had never happened.”
Iden said he believed Hamman was truly remorseful and said he was sympathetic about the mental illness that Hamman has been diagnosed with. Nonetheless, Iden sentenced above state sentencing guidelines, which recommended a minimum of 5½ years, a midpoint of 10 years and a maximum of 12 years and four months.
Hamman received 30 years, with 10 years suspended, for aggravated malicious wounding of his infant son. Upon release, Hamman will be on five years of supervised probation and cannot have unsupervised contact with anyone under age 18.
“The senseless tragedy was that this was a defenseless child,” Iden said. “His quality of life is diminished and you could have avoided all of this.”
The length of the sentence was based on the severity of the damage done to the now 23-month-old boy on May 28, 2018, in his home in the 200 block of Cavalry Drive. The injuries caused cerebral palsy, West Syndrome — a severe form of epilepsy — retinal hemorrhaging and shrinking of the brain.
“When brain cells are damaged, they do not regenerate,” said prosecution witness Dr. Robin L. Foster, director of the Child Protection Team at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on Shaken Baby Syndrome. “I do not expect him to ever be normal in development.”
On the stand, Foster vigorously shook a baby doll up and down for about five seconds to demonstrate how hard a baby has to be shaken to cause the trauma the boy suffered. She said he will never fully develop mentally or physically and can never live independently.
Foster, who said she has dealt with several hundred shaken baby cases since becoming a physician in 1989, said the boy’s life expectancy will likely be decades less than a healthy person due to his injuries.
Hamman and Adriana Chavez-Latorre, the boy’s mother, were living in the home of Hamman’s mother, Elizabeth K. Hamman, when the shaking occurred. The boy continues to live with them.
Chavez-Latorre and the elder Hamman testified that the boy had been frequently crying due to teething in the days before the shaking. Chavez-Latorre was at work and Elizabeth Hamman was gardening outside the home when Hamman, a first-time father, shook the boy.
“I was trying to tend to him as best I could and he just wouldn’t stop crying,” Hamman told a Child Protective Services worker in a recorded interview played in court. “I just didn’t know what to do.”
In a 911 call recording played in court, Hamman admitted to shaking the baby. In a criminal complaint, he told police he shook the baby for about four seconds and that the boy’s head bobbled three to five times. Hamman said he became alarmed when the boy became unresponsive and vomited about five minutes later. He then called his mother for help before calling 911.
Elizabeth Hamman testified that her 31-year-old son had been diagnosed with depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as a boy.
Sara Boyd, a clinical psychologist who interviewed Nicholas Hamman for approximately six hours after the shaking, said he told her that he had stopped taking anti-anxiety drugs and sleep medication in the days before the shaking because they were causing him stomach problems.
Boyd said Hamman has a history of emotional problems, is easily overcome by stress and is sensitive to loud noises like a baby crying. She said he had some symptoms of autism, but not enough to be diagnosed as autistic.
Boyd said Hamman has impaired decision-making and problem-solving skills and is prone to acting impulsively. “He over estimates his competencies and underestimates his impairments,” she said.
Despite his emotional problems, Chavez-Latorre said Hamman was a caring individual and loving father.
“I just want Nick to get the help he needs,” said Chavez-Latorre, who had to quit her job to help care for their son since the shaking. “Even though he hurt our baby, I love him.”
In asking Iden to sentence within the guidelines, defense attorney David L. Hensley noted Hamman had a lifetime of psychological problems, but no history of violence before the incident. He noted Hamman had accepted responsibility for his actions and cooperated with authorities.
“Does that excuse what happened? No. But does it explain what happened? Yes,” Hensley said. “I would ask that you temper justice with mercy in this case.”
But Louis Campola, a county assistant commonwealth’s attorney, said Hamman was capable of controlling himself.
“He took away every bit of potential that this baby had. He destroyed it,” Campola said. “This is not someone with diminished mental capacity. All he had to do was walk out of the room.”