Legislature approves “Ava’s Law” to strengthen child abuse penalties

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The Alabama House voted to grant final approval to a bill that would increase penalties on aggravated child abuse offenders on Thursday.

The bill – dubbed “Ava’s Law” by sponsor Sen. Tom Whatley, in honor of a four-year-old girl who died at the hands of her abuser – would allow for harsher penalties in cases when a victim unintentionally dies due to child abuse. Current law allows such cases to be prosecuted only to the limits of manslaughter, which carries a 20-year maximum sentence.

“This law is about protecting children, the most vulnerable among us,” said Whatley, a Republican from Auburn. “Abusing children is a serious crime, and made even more heinous when a child dies as a result. This bill closes a loophole in the law and establishes a harsh penalty that fits the crime.”

The bill is named for Ava Zapata, a Lee County girl who died in May 2012 after suffering abuse by her mother’s boyfriend.

Under the proposed law, aggravated child abuse could now be elevated to the level of capital murder by prosecutors if it results in a minor’s death.

“I am grateful to Senator Whatley and District Attorney Robbie Treese for their work on this legislation,” said Jessica Ventiere, Assistant District Attorney for Lee County. “Ava’s Law bridges the gap between capital murder and manslaughter. It offers an option stronger than manslaughter when the evidence shows intent to abuse but not necessarily the specific intent to kill, which is required to prove capital murder.”

The bill, passed by the Senate earlier this month, now moves on to the desk of Gov. Robert Bentley for his signature and enactment into Alabama state law.

Senate Republicans said they made Ava’s Law a priority as part of its “Protecting Families & Children” agenda this legislative Session.

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