On Nov. 26 at the La Paz County Superior Courthouse in Parker, Ariz., presiding Judge Robert Duber sentenced 26-year-old Aaron Roman Freeman to life without the possibility of parole for the 2017 first-degree murder of 3-year-old daughter Autumn Shibley.
The sentence follows an Oct. 1 guilty conviction found by a trial jury earlier this year.
The case stems from Freeman’s arrest in 2017 following a La Paz County Sheriff’s Department-led investigation and submitted evidence which included surveillance footage showing physical child abuse actions committed against Shibley at a tire shop in neighboring Ehrenberg on June 10, 2017.
“As the court recalls from the trial, we played the entire video from the tire shop in Ehrenberg. And, while there were specific portions that were relevant to actual charges against the (defendant) – that entire video is important because it demonstrates a pattern of behavior during the hours that they were at that tire shop. A few things that were on the video that were obviously not charged were occasions when you can watch the defendant dragging (Autumn) around by the hair on her head; throwing her food on the ground for her to eat; her sitting on that hot ground in the Arizona summer to eat her food, and just sitting there motionless for hours. That demonstrates the kind of relationship that they had,” noted prosecuting La Paz County Deputy District Attorney Rachel Shackelford, underlining the disturbing nature of abuse as “casual cruelty” carried out by Freeman against Shibley. “That is not something that happens overnight. That is a pattern of behavior that the defendant enacted that led up to the events of that day (...) Smashing her hand on the door; and not just an ‘accidental’ smash – but grabbing the door handle with both hands and tugging as her fingers are trapped in the door. This was all found by the jury.”
Shibley – who was living with Freeman in Blythe at the time – was later admitted to Palo Verde Hospital (PVH), then subsequently transported by ambulance to Loma Linda Children’s Hospital in Loma Linda, Calif., where, on the morning of June 11, 2017, she was pronounced dead at 8:24 a.m.
The medical cause of death was noted as a perforated stomach (acute peritonitis “due to blunt force abdominal injury”) per internal lacerations found in Shibley. As further noted in testimony to the jury by a Riverside County Coroner’s Office forensic pathologist, the manner of death was listed as homicide.
According to court records and testimony, Freeman claimed a family dog to have caused the injuries to Shibley.
“A perforation of (one’s) stomach is extremely rare because it requires a specific type of force. When we were given reports that (Shibley) had a stomach perforation – and given the story that it was potentially caused by a dog – we knew that it was extremely unlikely because these cases are not possible,” stated Loma Linda University Medical Center physician Dr. D. Foulad during the trial’s fourth and final day of testimony. “These cases are usually due to what we call non-accidental trauma – or, assault to a child – (due to) the force required to cause such a perforation is usually something similar to a child being on the ground and someone stomping on them with a significant amount of force. Or being against a wall and being punched or hit with a specific – sledge hammer, or some type of tool – with a large amount of force.”
On day two of the trial (Sept. 25), a June 10, 2017, surveillance video of the tire shop in Ehrenberg was presented to the jury which showed the various graphic acts of physical child abuse actions committed by Freeman against Shibley.
“The child, obviously, was looking for clues on how to behave. (Autumn) was looking for clues on how to behave in the environment she was in with you. Not as someone anxiously looking to please you – but as one who was fearful, who was vigilant, who was afraid not to understand what was expected. Fearful of what might happen if she didn’t do what was expected of her. And that’s a heck of a place to be at three years old. So that suggested to me that this was not an isolated event,” stated Duber at the sentencing hearing. “It happened over a long period of time. There were breaks between the times. It seemed like you would go off after ruminating about your anger.”
A subsequent approximately 10-second long video showing Shibley struggling to stay afloat in a pool, filmed by Freeman at a residence in Blythe, was also shown to the jury.
“I was very troubled when I heard the tape – when I saw the video – where the child was in the pool. Less, actually, about you (telling her) to get away from the edge of the pool. But more from your comment that you told the child, ‘Say hi to mom,’ or words to that affect,” noted Duber. “And at the time, it struck me – that seemed taunting.”
According to the presented medical report related to Shibley’s documented autopsy, the three-year-old had abrasions and/or contusions of varying degrees on her head, upper lip, right ear, nose, below the chin, right elbow, right arm, lower leg, right foot, and back.
The charged counts against Freeman found to be true by the jury included:
• First-degree murder;
• Second-degree murder, a dangerous crime against children (DCAC);
• Child abuse (three counts);
• Aggravated assault;
• And two counts of aggravated assault upon a minor.
Additionally, the jury unanimously found the following three charged aggravating circumstances related to the case to be true:
• The victim’s immediate family suffered emotional harm, proven;
• The victim was a minor child, proven;
• And the victim was the defendant’s daughter, proven.
Freeman was found not guilty on one charged count of child abuse and one charged count of aggravated assault.
Though Freeman did not make a statement at sentencing, a signed attached letter to the pre-sentencing report for the judge to consider was submitted – in which he maintained to be “not guilty” to the more egregious charges.
“I have no excuses for my actions(. W)hen I seen the video, it broke my heart and I wish I could take that day back,” stated Freeman. “I replay the video in my head over and over asking myself what was going through my mind.”
Shibley’s mother, Ashly Norine Parrish, offered a victim impact statement to the court in the pre-sentence report as well.
“Autumn was a very easy loving child(. S)he always had a smile on her face, she was never a bad kid or a problem child(. S)he was a very healthy child (until) you got her. (S)he was my pride and joy(. Y)ou took that from me, I don’t get to see her grow up(. I) got cheated out of Autumn’s life,” stated Parrish’s letter.
In comments teleconferenced to the court, Parrish would also note the hope for a death sentence.
“The worst possible person picks on a three-year-old child,” said Duber in comments before formally sentencing Freeman to life in prison without the possibility of parole. “We, all – and I suspect you, in any public environment – would be outraged if somebody did those things to a dog. But doing them to your own child, who’s three years old, is truly...Indescribable for a parent. Or even an adult.”
Freeman was transferred and admitted to the Arizona Department of Corrections – Eyman Complex on Nov. 27.