NORWALK, Ohio – A couple on trial for putting some of their 11 adopted children in cages are guilty only of loving them, a defense attorney said Tuesday in his opening statement.
"Eleven is a strain, a huge strain, but they did it for the right reason," said defense attorney Ken Myers.
The children have a host of health and behavioral problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome and a disorder that involves eating dirt. Sharen and Michael Gravelle have repeatedly said the enclosures were necessary to keep the children from harming themselves or one another.
The Gravelles are charged with 16 counts of felony child endangering and eight misdemeanor child endangering charges.
The children ranged in age from 1 to 14 when authorities removed them in September 2005 from the Gravelles' home in rural Wakeman, about 60 miles from Cleveland. The Gravelles later lost custody, and the youngsters were placed in foster care.
Prosecutor Russell Leffler told jurors that for punishment the children were confined to the cages, forced to eat peanut butter for weeks and dunked headfirst in the toilet.
"It's about chicken wire and wooden boards, being literally cooped up, hotter than blazes in summer, an amazingly shrill alarm and little fingers trying to tear wire," Leffler said.
Myers defended the use of the enclosed beds, which he said were no smaller than an average bunk bed. He said the cages were necessary to protect the children from getting into trouble at night.
"Some of the kids thought they were cool because it felt like being in a fortress," Myers said.
The prosecutor told the jurors the children were rescued from the home after a visit from a social worker who described the cages as "slave quarters."
That social worker, Jo Johnson, testified Tuesday that she visited the Gravelles' home Sept. 9, 2005, after receiving a tip about the cages. She said she saw no physical signs of abuse on the children but determined that the cages, which she likened to slave quarters, constituted abuse.
Myers, during his opening statement, suggested that Johnson came up with the comparison because she and the children are black and the Gravelles are white.
If convicted, Michael Gravelle, 57, and Sharen, 58, could get up to five years in prison on each felony count.