WEST CHESTER — Mason Harris Gray struggled with a broken home, drug abuse, depression and anger issues in his 19 years on Earth.
But authorities say that should not excuse what he did to his girlfriend's 3-year-old son, beating the child so badly that it suffered a lacerated liver, broken pelvis and bruises on his face and torso.
"The defendant's criminal conduct is, in a word, horrendous," wrote Deputy District Attorney Elizabeth Pitts in a memo asking a Common Pleas Court judge to sentence Gray, a former Unionville High School student, to 12½ to 25 years in prison.
Judge David Bortner on Monday budged barely from that recommendation, ordering Gray confined to a state prison for 11½ to 23 years on charges of aggravated assault of a person under age 13, endangering the welfare of children, simple assault and recklessly endangering another person.
Gray had entered a no-contest plea to the charges in August, maintaining through his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Stuart R. Crichton, that he had no recollection of whatever he did to cause the injuries to the son of his girlfriend, Kimberly Johnson, with whom he was living at the time in her mother's apartment in Caln.
Citing the affects of Gray's mental health issues caused by his drug use and childhood trauma, Crichton asked Bortner to keep Gray's sentence within standard guidelines for such crimes. He recommended six to 12 years in prison.
Mental health evaluations offered by Pitts and Crichton paint a bleak picture of Gray's life from the time he was a sixth-grader until the time of the assault.
Gray was shuffled between parents after their divorce, and he started taking drugs at a young age. He regularly abused illegal substances while in school at Unionville and was eventually sent to a juvenile detention camp for his offenses.
He spent time living homeless on the streets of Denver, Colo., before returning to Chester County and forming a relationship with Johnson, whom he had known in middle school.
On Feb. 2, Johnson left the child with Gray when she went to work. He admitted taking several doses of over-the-counter cold medicine before he passed out while alone with the child and later awoke to find the child lying on the floor.
But instead of calling 911 for help, he began sending text messages to Johnson at work. One of the messages indicates the child "was fine and then he started throwing up and he passed out," records say. Another message indicates the sender didn't want to notify police, fearing authorities and the child's grandmother would "think that I did this" and that he didn't know what to do.
When emergency personnel arrived, Gray told them that the boy had been vomiting in the bathroom and fell, hitting his head on the toilet. But the injuries discovered when the child was taken to the Alfred I DuPont Hospital in Wilmington were far more extensive that a fall the floor could have caused, and Gray was arrested for abusing the boy the following day, records show.
While in Chester County Prison awaiting trial, Gray made calls to Johnson that were recorded by the prison. In one, he admitted lashing out at the child in anger. "I don't know why it had to be him," he said. "I said I hit him. I did. But I don't remember doing it."
In her memo to Bortner delivered to Bortner before sentencing, Pitts expressed doubt that Gray had no memory of what had happened that day.
"It strains credulity to believe that (Gray) does not recall inflicting such serious bodily injury to a child who was at the time barely 3 years old," she wrote.
After the child was airlifted to the hospital, doctors discovered two subdural hematomas, a lacerated liver, a fractured pelvis and numerous bruises. Some of his injuries were older, indicating the child might have been abused previously, and he had been hospitalized before with bruising.
At the time of his plea in August, Pitts said the victim had been in and out of the hospital for weeks after the beating and that at one time the child was near death from complications that had developed.