UTAH STATE PRISON — While their versions of what transpired were slightly different, both Casey Joseph Cormani and Cassandra Leydsman Richards agree about one thing when it comes to drug use and their daughter.
“I did not put Penny first. She became second priority to my addiction. And that’s what I have to live with every day,” a remorseful Cormani told a member of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole this week.
In December 2015, 13-month-old Penny Mae Cormani died after eating enough heroin that would have killed an adult male, prosecutors say.
Casey Cormani was sentenced to up to five years in the Utah State Prison after pleading guilty to attempted manslaughter as part of a plea deal.
Richards was also sentenced to up to five years in prison on a conviction of child abuse homicide.
On Tuesday, both parents went before the board for the first time during separate hearings.
Cormani, 34, of Cedar Hills, was emotional as he recounted how at that time, his “heroin addiction had spiraled out of control.”
“We weren’t working. We weren’t able to live a normal life,” Cormani said in a recording of his hearing, talking about how he and Richards were living at the time.
He said they were about to be kicked out of the motel they were staying in because they had run out of money. He called some friends who Cormani knew were drug users and asked if they could stay with them.
“I knew the environment I was taking (my daughter) to,” he struggled to recount. “In my addictive thinking, I didn’t see what the full consequences of what could have happened. I made the choice to take her there.”
Richards, 35, of Lehi, said in a recording of her parole hearing that the couple allowed them to stay at the house in exchange for heroin. On Dec. 2, 2015, she said Cormani set off to find heroin to pay for their stay.
While he was gone, she said she put Penny on the floor next to her as she folded laundry. Later, she put Penny in a port-a-crib in a bedroom upstairs and then went back downstairs for about an hour.
When she returned to wake Penny, the toddler’s lips were blue and purple.
“When I opened the door I knew there was something wrong because she was face first into her port-a-crib after I had laid her on her back,” Richards tearfully recounted.
She attempted to give Penny CPR but said she wasn't doing it correctly. Richards said there was a delay in calling 911 because the homeowner told her, “I’m not calling the cops. Your baby looks dead,” she said.
The homeowner insists he called 911 immediately. Once emergency personnel were called, Penny was rushed to the hospital where she was pronounced dead.
During their parole hearings, both Cormani and Richards were asked tough questions about why they let their child live in a drug-infested environment if they both knew they were heroin addicts and Penny was born a year earlier addicted to drugs.
“You have a drug-exposed newborn, and you are actively in an opiate addiction and you take custody of that newborn. Explain to me how that happens,” board member Denise Porter sternly questioned.
“I knew it was a terrible environment,” Cormani conceded. “My plan was to seek sobriety and become a good father to her. But the addiction was so out of control, that the addiction took precedence to finding any help.”
When asked why he didn’t seek help from family members, Cormani said he was “embarrassed” about his addiction.
Likewise, Richards said she put her own needs over her daughter’s. She said her parents watched Penny often, but could not do it at that time because of a trip they took over Thanksgiving. Richards said her parents had already legally adopted her older daughter, whom she had with a different man, and in the back of her mind she was hoping they would also adopt Penny.
But Richards conceded the topic never came up because she was “not caring as a drug addict to ask.”
Richards also told the board, “I didn’t want to admit I couldn’t be a mother.”
While Cormani has struggled with addiction all his life, and even got a drug-related DUI while he was waiting for his case on his deceased daughter to progress, Porter noted that he has had no disciplinary write-ups while in prison. He has also earned his high school diploma and successfully completed all his treatment classes.
“I have a new strive for life to be a better person,” he said.
Both Cormani and Richards — who are no longer together — say building self-esteem and reestablishing relationships with their parents and other family members has helped them move past their addictions.
Richards admitted she struggled at first when she came to prison, even being kicked out of one treatment program four times. But whereas before she said she felt like an outcast in her family and started hanging out with people she believed gave her validation, she said she can now openly talk with her parents about anything, and “feels at peace” when she tells them the truth instead of lying to “not disappoint them” as she did before.
“I would never wish this on anybody, No parent should ever have to bury their child. Nobody should ever have to feel the pain that I feel everyday knowing that Penny is no longer with us because of choices and the environment I put her in,” a repentant Cormani concluded.
The full five-member board will now take separate votes on both Cormani and Richards to determine whether they should be placed on parole.