After his conviction by a jury, 30-year-old Deviaun Toler last January was sentenced to 20 years in prison for burning and brutalizing his infant son over a period of weeks. He’d faced up to 80 years. It did not end the case. (See: “Father of 20-Month-Old Boy Found Guilty of Brutalizing and Burning Him.”)
Toler’s then-girlfriend, Luciana Celestin, was present at the time of the abuse in early 2018. She witnessed it. She did not report it to authorities, or take the child to the hospital until he had suffered grave and life-threatening injuries. The child was Toler’s with another woman.
“What was happening in that house was a house of horrors,” the prosecutor said, and Celstin did not act to protect the child.
Celestin was charged with aggravated child neglect, a second degree felony exposing her to a maximum of 15 years in prison. She pleaded guilty last November. It was an open plea, meaning that it would be up to a judge to decide the terms of her sentence.
It wasn’t until this afternoon that Celestin, 29, appeared before Circuit Judge Terence Perkins for her sentencing in Bunnell. Perkins sentenced her to 21 months in prison, followed by three years on probation.
“I can’t remember any case where I read more or prepared more for a sentencing,” Perkins said, “yet I can’t remember many cases where the dilemma on sentencing was greater.” He gave Celestin until October 12 to report back to the courthouse to turn herself in for jail, then her transfer to state prison. She sobbed in disbelief, her head slumped against the defendant’s table. Two of the three family members who’d attended the hearing wailed.
As is often the case on these occasions, the judgment synthesized testimony and arguments that drew a sharply contradictory portrait of Celestin. The defense portrayed her as a victim of depression and post-traumatic stress, who was at times in a “vegetative” state and who was not capable of acting rationally. A forensic psychologist described her as the victim of Toler’s physical and psychological abuse.
The claims may be true. But they are not supported by her transcribed depositions and interviews with detectives.
The prosecution portrayed Celestin as indifferent to the welfare of the infant, TT, even though she had a pediatrician’s number, which she could call at any hour, even though she could have urged Toler to take the child in for treatment. “Never, ever decided to do any of those things,” in the words of Assistant State Attorney Melissa Clark, just as she would “literally do nothing” when Toler would whip the boy with a belt, to the point of fracturing his skull, even as the boy screamed in excruciating pain or when she was fully aware Toler had just burned the boy with scalding water.
Dr. Randall Alexander of the University of Florida College of Medicine and Department of Pediatrics had reviewed the case and testified for the prosecution, as he had during Toler’s trial. He said TT should have been brought to the hospital immediately after he was burned, and that had he not eventually been brought in, when the boy was acting lethargic from what turned out to be a skull fracture, he would have died.
“She’s minimizing her responsibility, because she knows” how hurt the boy was, Clark said of Celestin.
Forensic psychologist Lisa Potash, who spent four hours in consultation with Celestin on behalf of the defense, determined that Celestin was suffering from “severe mental illness even before she got pregnant with her second daughter,” following a car crash. Celestin was 21 weeks pregnant with a boy at the time, and was told that due to complications from the crash, the child would not survive. “She delivered a dead baby,” Potash said.
The father was Toler, who is also the father of the couple’s subsequent daughter. Once they went home after the hospital stay, Potash said, “he got in her face and told her she had the accident on purpose and that she killed Devin and that it was her fault he was dead.” She felt trapped. Yet she had another child with him. (The daughter was taken away from her by the Department of Children and Families after the abuse of TT came to light. DCF concluded that, given what had happened with TT, the house was no longer safe for a child. Toler’s uncle adopted her.)
She’d been a brilliant student, valedictorian of her high school, earning a full scholarship for college, graduating college–only to change radically and become submissive to Toler’s “abuse, misuse, gaslighting, demoralization.” Potash described Celestin as largely at the mercy of Toler because of her depression.
Clark dismissed the defense’s–and Celestin’s–claims of abuse against her, or claims of battered wife syndrome, as opportunistic, late-hour strategies designed to protect her. None of those claims had been made when Toler himself was under investigation, Clark said. Celestin also lied to police initially when asked about the burn, Clark said. She’d been rational enough to Google what to do after the burn. She was not in a “vegetative” state, nor was her behavior consistent with what the defense’s psychologist claimed, Clark said. “She had a duty in that house as an adult to stop it,” Clark said of the abuse. She did not do so, “until that baby almost died.”
Celestin herself addressed the court in a statement.
“There’s not a moment where I don’t think about this situation and everything that I could have done differently. If I can go back in time. I would certainly 100 percent go back in time,” Celestin said. “It’s been a really hard for me losing my son and having my daughter, being in a relationship where I was not the person who I like, wasn’t the person who I want it to be I lost myself.”
She broke down, briefly unable to continue. “It’s so devastating that I was around and let something so devastating happened to a small child, that I did not have the ability to do anything about it,” she she told the court. Three family members sat in the courtroom behind her, crying.
Even her attorney, Bruce Johns, spoke to the court of his perplexity about the case. She knew about the abuse, lied about it, but didn’t cause it, he said. “I’m not sure she even knows what happened,” Johns said.
“I couldn’t understand why she didn’t do something” as just “a human being,” he told the court in his argument for leniency. “I talked to her I spent time with her. I also spent time with maniacs.” That’s not who she is, he said. “Everything doesn’t make sense. We see a person who’s led an exemplary life, except for this.” He said he still didn’t understand it, leaving the explanation as possibly that of the psychologist.
He said due to her exemplary life, her lack of a prior record, her qualities as illustrated in character letters sent in to the court he was asking for no prison or jail time. Only probation or house arrest. Clark, of course, objected.
The 21 months are the lowest end of the guidelines. “I don’t even think frankly 21 months is enough,” Clark said, calling for five years in prison followed by 10 years in probation.
Perkins’s two questions were: why didn’t she stop the abuse, and if she couldn’t stop it, why didn’t she subsequently help the child by seeking medical attention?
“I could see how the psychological aspect of the relationship with Mr. Toler might affect that. And if that were the only issue before us I can see where that would be a stronger mitigation. It’s not the only issue,” Perkins said. “I think the other issue, the issue being, Why did she help the child, is really the more important issue.”
Was it “extreme duress”? The judge didn’t think so. He then offered his own conclusion: “I don’t think she was afraid of Mr. Toler. I think she was afraid of the police. I think she knew what he was doing was a crime. He was abusing his children. And she was telling him: You stop abusing this child, or you’re going to get arrested.”
Her acts, in other words, were consciously calculated, and they were not calculated to protect the child, but to protect herself, and Toler. The judge then passed sentence, and sobs erupted.