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Killpack receives prison sentence

Judge says mother never once took responsibility

Jennete Killpack wipes away a tear during sentencing.
Jennete Killpack wipes away a tear during sentencing.
Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News

PROVO — Jennete Killpack sat quietly, eyes closed and head bowed as a judge who decided to send her to prison criticized her for not taking responsibility for the death of her 4-year-old adopted daughter.

Three months after being found guilty by a jury of child-abuse homicide — and 3 1/2 years after the death that led to that conviction — Killpack was sentenced Friday to serve one to 15 years in the Utah State Prison.

The 30-year-old Springville woman was ordered to begin serving that sentence on Jan. 13. The exact length of Killpack's incarceration is up to the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole.

"She still refuses to acknowledge and take responsibility for her actions," 4th District Judge Claudia Laycock said before issuing the sentence.

Laycock's assessment echoed that of Utah County Deputy Attorney Sherry Ragan, who said Killpack, if she truly felt like she had been responsible, "should be coming before the court and asking for the maximum sentence."

"This defendant, from the moment (the girl's death) happened, has been trying to justify her actions," Ragan said.

Prosecutors said Killpack put her daughter, Cassandra, on a bar stool the night of June 9, 2002, tied the girl's hands behind her back and forced her to drink about a gallon of water as punishment for taking a sibling's drink.

Cassandra was vomiting and choking and her temperature had dropped to 90 degrees by the time paramedics arrived at the Killpacks' Springville home, Ragan said. And it wasn't the first time Cassandra had been abused, she said.

"This defendant was completely out of control," Ragan said. "She bit this child, she tied her arms behind her back and forced water down her."

The punishment led to the girl's death by water intoxication — a condition that causes the brain to swell and the body's sodium level to drop to a fatal level, prosecutors said.

"The reason this child is dead is completely attributed to what the defendant did to her," she said.

Ragan said Laycock's decision to sentence Killpack to prison sends a message that "if you cause the death of that child, you're going to do prison time."

Defense attorney Mike Esplin had requested probation or a lenient sentence that would have allowed Killpack to stay at home with her four children, who range in age from 5 1/2 months to 10 years, and serve her prison sentence on nights and weekends.

"Incarceration is not required to punish Mrs. Killpack," Esplin said. "She punishes herself every day. That punishment will continue whether or not she's incarcerated."

Esplin called two witnesses prior to the sentencing in an effort to show that a prison sentence would result in hardship to both Killpack and her family — emotionally, financially and medically.

"Everyone who goes to prison faces some hardship, but in this case, this is a mother of four children," he said.

Ragan called the suggestion that Killpack be allowed to stay home and raise her children "a ridiculous one."

"I do not believe she is a good mother," she said. "I believe her children are better off without her at this point. . . . She's a very dangerous person who is a threat to children."

Esplin argued that the Utah Division of Child and Family Services made the determination that Killpack was a good mother when it returned her children Oct. 31, 2002.

"If Ms. Ragan is saying that Jennete Killpack is not a good mother," he said, "she doesn't know what a good mother is."

Esplin said at one time there was a plea deal on the table for Jennete Killpack that called for her to plead guilty to second-degree felony child-abuse homicide in exchange for a recommendation of probation from prosecutors.

"(Prosecutors) would not agree not to recommend any jail time, but they would agree to recommend probation," he said.

"Was she not a bad mother then, but she's a bad mother now?" Esplin asked after the sentencing.

Ragan declined to comment on the proposed plea bargain.

Killpack was found guilty by a jury on Oct. 11, 2005, in a split-verdict decision that acquitted her husband, Richard, 37.

The Killpacks contend that Cassandra was only given about 20 ounces of water, and that they do not know how she died.

That story, Laycock said, was not supported by the facts.

"Any and all attempts I have made to find the defendant's story truthful have failed," she said.

Laycock said she believes Jennete Killpack engaged in a power struggle with her adopted daughter that the mother ultimately won when Cassandra died.

"Just as (Killpack) told the jury she felt the responsibility to teach Cassandra that there are consequences, there must also be consequences for her actions," Laycock said.

The Killpacks, who were supported by about 25 family and friends at court Friday, left the courtroom without speaking to the media, but a sobbing Jennete Killpack was given the opportunity to address the judge during the hearing.

"I'm not asking mercy for me," she said through tears. "Anything you do to me pales in comparison to the loss of my child. I loved Cassandra very much. I understand what I did was wrong. I ask that you not punish my children."

Esplin said he plans to file an appeal.

"There are many issues that have been raised in the course of these proceedings that need to be addressed," he said.

The defense attempted an appeal in April 2004 following the Killpacks' preliminary hearing to address the standard of proof required by the state, Esplin said. "We were not successful at that point, but now I think it's an appropriate time to get the (Utah Court of Appeals) to look at it," he said.

Killpack was given a week to report to prison because Richard Killpack's mother died this week. "I think it was an appropriate sentence," Ragan said, "and I also agree with the judge allowing her that week. I felt that was an appropriate thing to do."