A judge sentenced Michael Whisenhunt to die in 1996 for torturing a "helpless, innocent victim" — a toddler he scalded with grease and kicked ferociously in the stomach.
Jurors convicted Whisenhunt in August 1996 for the Oct. 10, 1995, slaying of Kesha Gurke, the 20-month-old daughter of a woman he lived with in Paso Robles.
In the final hours of her brief life, Kesha Gurke endured pain almost too excruciating to comprehend, District Attorney Barry LaBarbera said during the trial.
Her insides were pummeled with a blow forceful enough to rip apart her intestines. Kesha's skin was then seared with a thick, oily liquid. A doctor who had treated thousands of burn victims testified for the prosecution that it was "like candle wax being poured on a baby."
Whimpering and barely conscious, according to testimony, she died a slow death, bleeding internally and in shock from the deep burns. Neither Whisenhunt nor the toddler's mother, Jeanette Marie Hill, called paramedics until the toddler stopped breathing two to three hours after she was burned.
The mother, who was 19 at the time of the killing, pleaded guilty in 1996 to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to six months in County Jail and six months at an inpatient counseling center. Prosecutors said the evidence showed she was guilty of not preventing her child's death.
Hill testified during the trial that she had spent the afternoon her daughter died with a girlfriend, and was met by Whisenhunt outside their Vine Street studio apartment when she got home. He said Kesha had been burned during a shower, but "it wasn't as bad as it looks." The woman said she found her daughter whimpering on the floor when she walked in. Approximately three hours later, the girl went limp and Hill went to a neighbor's house to call 911.
Whisenhunt, who sat sullenly throughout most of his trial, stared straight ahead and demonstrated no emotion when Superior Court Judge Barry Hammer sentenced him to death in October 1996.
He only shook his head when the judge asked him whether there was any reason he shouldn't be sentenced. Neither he nor his attorneys addressed the court before the sentence was given.
Hammer said even though "it is clear the defendant had a troubled childhood," as a mature adult Whisenhunt must take responsibility for killing a 20-month-old girl.
Whisenhunt, the judge said, "is a man dangerous to others."
Psychologists testified about a nightmarish childhood during which Whisenhunt was beaten and shuttled from foster homes to social welfare institutions and back again.
A judge finally cut him loose from the juvenile court's jurisdiction when he was just 17, and Whisenhunt wound up leaving the Midwest for California.
LaBarbera, who prosecuted Whisenhunt, presented evidence during the penalty phase of the trial that the defendant had physically abused other children in his care.
Whisenhunt had already served time in prison after being convicted of shooting into a Paso Robles home.
Information for this story came from The Tribune's archives.