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Man found guilty in Wal-Mart slapping

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Though a jail stint is drawing to a close for the Gwinnett man who famously smacked a stranger's toddler in Wal-Mart last summer, his court-mandated responsibilities have only just begun.

Sixty-one-year old Stone Mountain retiree Roger Stephens, whose grimacing mugshot graced Web sites and publications from The Smoking Gun to the New Zealand Herald, faced the parents of Paige Mathews, 2, in Gwinnett Superior Court on Tuesday, issuing an impromptu apology:

"I'd like to apologize about any stress or anxiety you've suffered as a result of my actions," said the lanky and diminutive Stephens, dressed in green jail garb for his bench trial. "I hope your daughter can recover properly. I'll do anything I can to help that if needed."

The victim's parents, Sonya and Tivey Mathews, hardly batted an eye. Earlier, in victim impact statements, the Grayson couple had urged Judge Warren Davis to keep Stephens confined for a year, dating back to his Aug. 31 arrest.

"My family was extremely, negatively affected by this," said the child's father, Tivey, donning a Naval uniform. "He threatened my family and then he followed through on it."

Sonya Mathews, the only eyewitness to the attack, said her daughter cried that morning in the Rockbridge Road retailer because she had a cold. A lenient sentence, she said, would be "a slap in my child's face all over again."

"I chose to take the higher ground and not harm (Stephens) in any way," Sonya told the judge. "I did a lot of praying ... I wanted the court system to handle it, and to be fair."

Prosecutors and Stephens' defense attorney, Jeff Sliz, had agreed to stipulations beforehand that lessened the felony charges against him from first to second degree child cruelty, a difference between malicious intent and reckless disregard toward others.

Police found that the child, slapped four or five times by Stephens in the store's frozen foods section, suffered slight redness to her face but was not seriously injured. The aisle was not under video surveillance, said Assistant District Attorney Robby King.

Davis found Stephens guilty of the lesser charge and sentenced him to six months in jail -- meaning he'll be released in late February -- followed by six months of home confinement and five years probation.

Additionally, Stephens will have to complete 80 hours of community service, along with mental evaluations and treatment. He can have no unsupervised contact with children under 12, and must wear an electronic ankle monitor, Davis ruled.

"I want there to be clear, identifiable data that you were getting the treatment you need," Davis told Stephens.

Sonya Mathews, who is black, said she felt the attack was motivated by mental illness and not race. She said the lingering, psychological impact has made shopping difficult with either of her two children, ages 2 and 4.

"I believe (Stephens) would have hit any child," she said. "We all deal with crying kids on a daily basis. Nevertheless, we know we can't just slap a child.

"There was a blank look on his face," she continued. "He wasn't afraid and he wasn't ashamed."

Prior mental evaluations have found Stephens was competent, "but had some other issues," said King, the prosecutor.

Authorities said Stephens had never met the victim or her mother, but warned, "If you don't shut that baby up, I'll shut her up for you."

The child's cries persisted, and Stephens confronted the pair again, slapped the girl and said: "See, I told you I would shut her up," according to a police report. He was cornered by another shopper and arrested.

Sliz requested his client be sentenced under the first offender act, meaning Stephens' record could be wiped clean should he complete his probation without violating its terms; conversely, he could be sentenced up to 10 years in prison for slipping up.

Stephens, according to Sliz, is a divorcee with no children who's reliant on a "modest" pension. He'd completed schooling for heating and air-conditioning work but had yet to find a job, Sliz said.

His criminal record, save for a DUI more than a decade ago, is clean, Sliz said. Slapping the child could have been the result of a "bad mood," he said.

"There's no history of violence or anger," Sliz said. "For 61 years, he was a good, contributing member of society."

Davis, prior to his ruling, called the case "unsettling in so many ways" and said the parents "have every right in the world to be furious."

"It's ironic, when it comes down to it," the judge told Stephens. "Who was acting childish that day was you."