Local News

Self-Proclaimed Minister Stands Trial for Child Abuse

Posted January 9, 2000

— A Wake County jury will begin hearing testimony Tuesday in the trial of a self-proclaimed minister charged with felony child abuse. Howard Hunichen, also known as Brother Howard, is charged with critically injuring an infant in his care.

Prosecutors believe Hunichen was trying to discipline 7-month-old Zachary Fortner back in April, when the incident occurred. Hunichen is accused of causing skull and pelvic fractures that left the child with permanent neurological damage.

The trial raises a lot of questions about where discipline ends and abuse begins.

Last year, 120,000 children were reportedly abused in North Carolina.

Jennifer Tolle headsPrevent Child Abuse North Carolina. Her group gets hundreds of calls a year from people who want to know exactly where the line between discipline and abuse is drawn.

"For it to be considered child abuse in our state, there needs to be permanent or life-threatening injury," Tolle says.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby says someone must willfully hurt a child to be held responsible under the law.

"Occasionally the best-intentioned parent will make a mistake," Willoughby says. "It's another thing when you seriously injure a child, try to cover it up, and make like it didn't happen. That presents a great deal of danger to the child."

Brother Walter has been a street corner evangelist in the Triangle for ten years and he says Hunichen is not guilty. "I can't imagine someone doing that to a little child," he says. "Especially somebody that loves the Lord."

Hunichen's attorney says the whole incident was an accident, and that the child fell off the bed.

The child's parents, Kevin and Lisa Fortner, were also charged with felony child abuse. They are expected to testify against Hunichen.

The trial is expected to last through the end of the week.

If convicted, Hunichen could face up to 98 months in prison, but his attorney says because he has no prior record, he would probably face only about half that.

Zachary Fortner is in the custody of the state.

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