'At what point does child neglect become murder?' lawyer asks at Goforths' appeal

At the Regina appeal hearing for Tammy and Kevin Goforth, Tammy's lawyer called the case, which left a four-year-old girl dead, "a horrible case of neglect" that does not equate to murder.

Tammy Goforth convicted of 2nd-degree murder, Kevin Goforth convicted of manslaughter in 4-year-old's death

Kevin and Tammy Goforth were convicted in 2016 of killing a four-year-old girl, JG, who had been in their care. The girl died after a heart attack caused by starvation. (CBC)

The lawyer for a woman convicted in 2016 of second-degree murder told the Regina appeal hearing for Tammy and Kevin Goforth on Tuesday that the case, which left a four-year-old girl dead, was "a horrible case of neglect" but does not equate to murder.

The Goforths were found guilty — Tammy of second-degree murder and her husband, Kevin, of manslaughter — after a jury trial in 2016.

During the trial, a doctor detailed how the girl, who had been in the Goforths' custody for months, was just skin and bones when she was brought into hospital in 2012.

The girl, who can only be identified as JG, was severely malnourished, bruised and had a heart attack while in hospital, and eventually died there. The girl's sister, who was also cared for by the Goforths, survived. The Goforths were convicted of harming her.

Here is a timeline of key events that occurred prior to the trial of Kevin and Tammy Goforth. The Regina couple is charged with killing a girl, 4, and harming her sister. 1:00

Tammy and Kevin filed separate appeals of their convictions, for which Tammy received a life sentence with no chance of parole for 17 years and Kevin received a 15-year prison sentence.

The Goforths appeared for Tuesday's proceedings by closed-circuit TV from the correctional institutions where they're currently serving their respective sentences. Both sat with their hands clasped in front of them, neither showing emotion.

The final decision, made by three appeals judges, was reserved.

Tammy's appeal arguments

"The fact that [Tammy] failed to provide adequate medical care should not equate to murder," Tammy's appeal lawyer Brian Pfefferle said in court.

He argued that neglect and laziness by two people who weren't "particularly sophisticated" does not show intent to murder. He asked not for an acquittal, but a lesser conviction of manslaughter.

Pfefferle questioned why the jury found her guilty of murder but acquitted Kevin of murder, finding him guilty of manslaughter on the same evidence. He told court that manslaughter and failure to apply necessities of life are common charges in similar cases but murder is not.

Prosecutor Beverly Klatt countered those arguments by saying Tammy spent more time as a caregiver — feeding, dressing and bathing the kids while also confining them to their rooms — meaning she was the only one who saw the condition the girls they were caring for were in.

Tammy saw their bruises and emaciated bodies and knew their condition was likely to cause death, Klatt argued.

She said there was a clear and rational basis for the jury's findings. She said the children were healthy when taken in by the Goforths.

"The families of these two children had a right to expect that they would be nurtured and cared for when they could not do so themselves," Klatt told court.

Tammy's notice of appeal was filed weeks after sentencing.

"I wish to appeal. [It's] so much of a heavy sentence. I wish to have a second chance of explaining myself," the handwritten notice read.

Kevin's appeal

Kevin's appeal lawyer, Kevin Hill, argued that Tammy, not her husband, had a legal duty of care for the girls because Tammy was a foster parent — Kevin Goforth simply allowed it.

He didn't know the state of affairs because he had assumed if the children needed anything, Tammy would have dealt with it, Hill argued, which he said constitutes a "lawful excuse" that was not properly explained to jurors at trial.

Hill said Kevin felt that morally, he perhaps should have done more, but wasn't legally obligated to.

Klatt responded by saying that trial evidence showed that while Kevin was unsure of taking in the girls at first, when he saw them "he fell in love and accepted them as his own.

​"At the end of it all, he was the guardian of those children."

She stands by the trial judge's jury charge, saying Justice Ellen Gunn did not make mistakes.

Hill is arguing that Tammy's culpability is much higher than Kevin's. He is seeking to have Kevin's conviction and sentence thrown out, and a new trial held. 

Kevin's notice of appeal came soon after Tammy's. In that application, he said the sentence was too long, and was "harsh" and excessive.

In court, Hill argued that Kevin's sentence should be eight years, which he says is within the "normal range" of seven to 10 years for manslaughter.

In sentencing the pair, Justice Gunn called the crimes "deplorable and unexplainable."

Past jurors in the case have spoken publicly about how they struggled to recover from the graphic images and testimony they saw at trial.

With files from Alex Soloducha