Richard Scott Burton, the former police chief of the tiny northeast Georgia town of Mt. Airy, was staring down 31 felonies — two counts of aggravated child molestation, one of child molestation and 28 of first-degree cruelty to children.
His wife, Cheryl, was looking at the same, minus the molestation. The possibility of decades in prison loomed over the couple, accused of abusing and neglecting their four adopted children for years.
Then, on Monday, as jury selection began in a Habersham County courtroom, a deal was struck: a guilty plea to one count of second-degree cruelty to children, and the rest would be dropped.
As a result, the Burtons will spend the next 25 weekends in the county jail, and the rest of their 10-year sentence on probation.
“I’m highly respectful of law enforcement. I have some in my family. I believe in following the law and doing the right thing, and I believe they enforce it,” the woman who has adopted all four victims in the case said Wednesday. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is withholding the woman’s name to protect the identities of the children involved.
“But I think maybe in this case the witness list influenced the (prosecutor’s) decision,” she said.
That prosecutor, Habersham County Chief Assistant District Attorney Eddie Staples, confirmed as much.
Staples said a number of people who were called to testify on the Burtons’ behalf were “law enforcement people,” folks that he tells juries are trustworthy on a daily basis. He said he didn’t want to risk putting the children through a trial that may have unraveled.
“The only reason that I offered a deal was … to provide finality for the children,” Staples said. “And to make sure that regardless of what else happened, the defendants had to admit responsibility for at least some of the harm that has come to the children.”
The indictment handed down against the Burtons last year alleges that plenty of harm came prior to their arrest in late 2012.
It accuses Richard Burton, 51, of molesting two of the children. Both incidents are alleged to have occurred during Burton’s term as Mt. Airy police chief, which ran from 2000 to 2007.
The indictment also accused Burton and his wife of, among other things, keeping the four adopted children confined to a single room except to perform chores; limiting their diets to “a sandwich for breakfast and lunch and macaroni with scraps occasionally added for supper”; and “using excessive corporal punishment.”
The single offense that the Burtons pleaded guilty to Monday covered their failure “to provide a nutritionally adequate diet … to the extent that (the children’s) growth was retarded,” Staples said.
The woman who adopted the Burtons’ now former children said Wednesday that her family “expected a lot more” in the plea bargain. She said the district attorney’s office had asked them generally about the possibility of a deal, and that they had expressed a desire for any agreement to include a minimum of 10 years in prison.
The woman did say, however, that the children — two boys and two girls, now 13, 14, 16 and 19 years old — were “excited” about not having to testify during a trial.
“Their biggest fear was seeing the Burtons again,” she said.
After serving as Mt. Airy’s police chief, Richard Burton was a patrolman with the nearby Cornelia Police Department. He most recently worked in Cornelia’s city marshal’s office, officials said.
The terms of Burton’s probation prohibit him — and his wife — from working in law enforcement or adopting children ever again.
“We have to make these kinds of decisions on these kinds of cases on a regular basis,” Staples said. “And I understand that it’s emotional and painful for people.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.