The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Clovis man sentenced to jail, probation for hitting child

 

CLOVIS - A Clovis man convicted last month of hitting a young child at a restaurant was sentenced Tuesday to a year in jail and over three years of supervised probation following.

Bruce Bender, 64, faced up to 4 1/2 years in prison after a jury found him guilty March 16 of disorderly conduct and felony child abuse charges from an incident last year at Leal's Mexican Restaurant.

That potential commitment included a one-year enhancement for a prior felony (a 2010 drug conviction), which Judge Fred Van Soelen said Tuesday he could not suspend since Bender's recent conviction involved violence.

Bender remained out on bond the past year following his March 16, 2017, arrest, but was taken directly into custody at the Curry County Detention Center following the sentencing hearing Tuesday. He can be out of custody within six months for good behavior, officials said, at which time he would continue on 3 1/2 years probation and be required to take an anger management class.

"I am sincerely sorry for my behavior," Bender told the judge. "I grew up in an era and a place where those actions were considered acceptable."

He became emotional while reading his statement to Van Soelen and handed the letter to his defense attorney Benjamin Herrmann to finish.

Prosecutors said Bender was dining with the child and a family member when he became frustrated with the child's fidgeting at the table and punched him in the face before leaving the restaurant.

During the hearing Herrmann disputed the description of the hit as a punch instead of an open-hand slap, while Bender opened his statement to the judge by pointing out the child had no physical injuries. A letter submitted to the court by the child's legal guardian said the boy, now 7, "has forgiven and forgotten," and that the guardian forgives him as well.

"In the world of child abuse, it's about as mild of a child abuse case as I think I've ever seen," Herrmann said.

Van Soelen agreed it was not an egregious case of child abuse, but disagreed with an assertion during the hearing by Bender's mother that the incident was "blown out of proportion."

"I'll only agree in so far that Mr. Bender's reaction to what happened was completely out of proportion ... punching a child for a minor infraction," he said.

Van Soelen declined Herrmann's recommendation to sentence Bender instead to house arrest in place of incarceration, noting there were not extraordinary circumstances preventing Bender, "a healthy man," from serving time in custody. He said Bender would serve his time at the Clovis jail and could apply then for the ankle monitor program, but it was unclear Tuesday if he would be accepted for the program.

District Attorney Andrea Reeb said since Bender's sentence involved a third-degree felony he would likely not be considered a candidate for an ankle monitor.

Herrmann said he was hopeful for a different outcome, and that meanwhile he planned to appeal the case largely on the basis of jury instructions that he thought left the definition of "cruelly punished" too open-ended.

"I think that the sentence was harsh but I understand the reasoning," Herrmann told The News. "The habitual offender law is extremely tough, especially in a situation where you have a 64-year-old man who caused no injury to a child and he has to serve a year in custody."

Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Stover said after the trial last month that while he personally believes "that there's a time for physical discipline with children," the state would not tolerate Bender's response in that particular incident.

Lara Maierhofer represented the state during the sentencing hearing Tuesday.

 

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