Woman who beat, starved daughter may be near parole

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 7, 2003

[5/7/03]A Warren County woman convicted of child abuse three years ago could be eligible for parole next month because of a Mississippi law designed to reduce the expense of prisons.

Crystal Buffington, 22, was convicted and sentenced in December 2000 to 13 years in prison for beating and starving her 2-year-old child. At the time of her conviction, “truth in sentencing” laws meant she would have to serve at least 85 percent of the sentence, but a change by state lawmakers in 2001, and retroactive to January 2000, made Buffington eligible for parole after three years.

She will get her chance at a hearing next month, but Warren County District Attorney Gil Martin said his office will seek to keep the mother of two behind bars.

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“We’re going to actively oppose her release,” Martin said. “It’s incredible to me that they would even consider any kind of early release for her.”

Buffington’s two-day trial in Warren County Circuit Court was marked by emotional outbursts from jurors who wept openly at times during testimony. The most disturbing evidence was pictures of the gaunt 2-year-old girl taken the day Buffington and the child’s father, Jerry Friley, 30, were arrested.

Some jurors were brought to tears by the photos of the child who weighed only 17 pounds, the average weight of a child half her age, and was bruised from head to toe and balding. Dr. John Dawson, who examined the child at the emergency room, testified the child was malnourished and dehydrated.

“Crystal Buffington used this child as a punching bag,” said Assistant District Attorney John Bullard when he prosecuted the case three years ago.

At the time, Martin and others in the DA’s office believed Buffington would serve at least 11 years before being eligible for release, but the next year lawmakers changed the rules to allow first-time offenders of non-violent crimes early release. The new law specifically listed crimes that were considered violent and therefore not eligible, including murder, robbery, sex crimes, aggravated assault, felonious abuse of vulnerable adults and some drug-related charges but the 2001 law did not include child abuse as a violent crime. It has since been amended, but the legal gap remains.

“How can anyone look at these pictures and say this is a non-violent crime?” asked Georgia Lynn, Warren County District Attorney’s Office victim assistance coordinator.

Although the law has been changed twice since Buffington was sentenced, officials with the Mississippi Department of Corrections say that her case falls under the 2000 legislation. Lynn has sent copies of the evidence against Buffington to the state parole board including photos of the child, who now lives with other relatives.

Mississippi lawmakers passed the “truth in sentencing law” requiring all felons to serve at least 85 percent of actual sentences in 1993. The result was a surge in prison population and expense and a sharp drop in many crime statistics. Lawmakers backed off the rule in a budget-balancing effort.

Friley pleaded guilty to child abuse charges and is serving five years in prison. Because he has a prior record, including burglary, he is not eligible for early release.

The maximum sentence for felony child abuse is 20 years in prison.

Buffington and Friley were arrested at their Berryman Road house Nov. 2, 1999, after a friend of Buffington’s noticed bruises on the child and notified the Warren County Sheriff’s Department.

An aunt now has custody of the child, who is now 5, and a younger sibling, who is now 4.