GREENFIELD — Judges can’t tell if a person is evil; they can only look at the person’s actions, and Matthew Wagoner’s speak for themselves, Hancock County Superior Court 1 Judge Terri Snow said.
Wagoner, convicted in late January of his daughter’s murder, was sentenced to 67½ years in the Department of Corrections on Wednesday afternoon in Hancock County Superior Court 1.
Investigators determined Wagoner assaulted his 1-year-old daughter, Zoey, in the hours before her death May 28. The girl suffered fatal blunt-force trauma injuries to the head and abdomen; Wagoner never admitted to harming the girl.
A four-day trial at the end of January concluded with a jury of 12 Hancock County residents convicting Wagoner of murder and neglect of a dependent causing death as a Level 1 felony.
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But Wagoner could only be punished for Zoey’s death in one of those charges, Snow decided.
The defendant filed a last-minute motion with the court this week asking Snow to consider treating neglect as a Level 6 felony rather than a Level 1 felony, citing an Indiana Supreme Court ruling that found a defendant cannot be sentenced twice (on charges of murder and neglect of a dependent causing death) for one death.
The 67½-year sentence was the maximum sentence Wagoner could serve, Snow said.
Wagoner won’t be eligible for parole until 2064; he will be 79, Prosecutor Brent Eaton said.
A babysitter dialed 911 the day Zoey died. Wagoner, who was home at the time, told police his daughter fell from a bed and stopped breathing, but coroners determined the injuries Zoey suffered were not accidental.
Coroners cataloged more than 40 injuries to the toddler’s body, including bruising, scratches and bleeding in her brain. Wagoner knew his daughter was ailing, but he refused to seek medical attention, prosecutors said.
Within the hours before her death, Zoey would have been in extreme pain. Then she would have become lethargic and eventually slipped into a coma, medical experts testified at trial.
The child was dead when officers arrived, court records state.
Wagoner had spent the morning watching Zoey. He walked with the little girl from their home in the 500 block of Wood Street to a nearby gas station, bought a soda and returned to the house, all while police believe his daughter was dying.
His path took him past Hancock Regional Hospital — police testified at trial that Wagoner even walked through the hospital parking lot on his way home — but he never stopped to seek medical help, court documents state.
Zoey’s parents were arrested after her death was ruled a homicide.
Jessica Merriman (formerly Jessica Wagoner; she divorced Matthew Wagoner from jail shortly after their arrest) accepted a plea agreement from prosecutors a few days after her ex-husband’s trial and is scheduled to be sentenced next week.
Lindsay Merriman, Zoey’s aunt, took the witness stand Wednesday to tell the judge of the heartache her family has faced since the little girl’s death.
Merriman said she liked Wagoner when he first met her sister, but as time went on, the family started noticing Wagoner’s abusive and controlling tendencies.
Wagoner’s criminal history dates back to his teens and includes at least five felony convictions. He has a pending child molestation case against him in Henry County.
While prosecutors argued those factors were cause for a maximum sentence, Jeff McClarnon, Wagoner’s defense attorney, asked Snow to consider those run-ins with the law as evidence of a troubled man trapped in the system from a young age.
“He didn’t have much of a chance himself,” McClarnon said.
Wagoner spoke briefly to the judge during the sentencing hearing, telling Snow that he thinks about his daughter every day and wished things had happened differently.
Jessica Merriman, Zoey’s mother, pleaded guilty to four counts of neglect: two Level 3 felonies related to Zoey’s death and injuries she suffered before she died; and two Level 6 felonies for the endangerment of her two other children. She’ll return to court for sentencing at 3 p.m. March 2.