Therapists get 16 years

Date: 2001-06-19

Women plan to appeal convictions in death of 10-year-old Candace in rebirthing therapy

Peggy Lowe, News Staff Writer

GOLDEN -- One therapist told of "the dark night of my soul" and another wished she could rewrite history as each woman was sentenced Monday to 16 years in prison for the rebirthing death of a 10-year-old girl.

Connell Watkins, 54, and Julie Ponder, 40, who both said Candace Newmaker's death was a tragic accident, will serve at least six years before becoming eligible for parole. Both plan to appeal their April 20 convictions for child abuse resulting in death.

Jefferson County District Court Judge Jane Tidball said she believed neither woman intended to hurt Candace.

While saying she didn't have much discretion on the 16-to-48 year mandatory sentence, Tidball said it will send "a powerful message" to other mental health practitioners who might consider the controversial therapy.

Still, Tidball called the crime "horrific," and mentioned the "unrelenting intensity" of the three-week trial where the videotaped procedure was played several times.

"As the mother of a 10-year-old, I can't fathom the loss of a child at that age or any age," said Tidball, who added that she also couldn't bear the "heavy weight that a child died while under my care."

Candace died April 19, 1999, a day after the rebirthing session in Watkins' Evergreen home. Candace was wrapped in a sheet and placed under several large pillows. Watkins, Ponder and two other adults then pushed against the child to simulate contractions, urging Candace to be "reborn" to her adoptive mother, Jeane Newmaker of Durham, N.C.

Candace screamed and begged for air, telling them she would die, to which the therapists replied: "Go ahead and die." The therapy was supposed to help cure Candace's attachment disorder, characterized by violent behavior towards her adopted mother.

Both Watkins and Ponder made tearful appeals Monday to Tidball, pleading for the more lenient sentence. Watkins, in a 10-minute dramatic statement, told Tidball that she had experienced "the dark night of my soul" since Candace's death.

Watkins said she has "profound sorrow and regret and remorse" over the child's death.

"I failed Candace and I failed her mother and I failed to keep Candace out of harm's way," Watkins said.

Watkins has hired former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Jean Dubofsky for her appeal.

Ponder said she retraces the rebirthing in her head every day, wondering where she went wrong.

"If I had only stopped five minutes sooner or checked on her one more time," Ponder said. "I was trying to help her and something unexpected happened."

Four of the jurors who convicted Ponder and Watkins, who said they fell in love with the little brown-haired girl while watching the videotapes of her therapy, cried again Monday during the sentencing.

"I think 16 years was perfect," said juror Marcia Hagan. "(Watkin is) not a hard criminal, but she needs to pay for what she's done."

Prosecutors urged Tidball to give Watkins and Ponder the maximum sentence, calling the rebirthing "torturous cruelty of a sickening and depraved nature." Watkins ridiculed, belittled, physically abused and finally smothered the child, said Steve Jensen of the Jefferson County District Attorney's office.

"The defendant literally tortured Candace Newmaker before killing her," Jensen said.

Laura Dunbar, another Jefferson County prosecutor, said Ponder was the lead therapist for Candace's rebirthing and is the most culpable for her death.

"She was the one who could have stopped this procedure at any time," Dunbar said. "It was her call."

Tidball also sentenced Watkins to another year and four months in jail for three lesser charges, including criminal impersonation, unlawful practice of psychotherapy and using another's signature for deception. Those sentences will run concurrently with the longer time.

Three other people are scheduled to stand trial in Candace's death: her adopted mother, Jeane Newmaker, who witnessed the rebirthing session and is charged with criminally negligent child abuse resulting in death; and Brita St. Clair and her husband, Jack McDaniel, who participated in the therapy and who are charged with child abuse resulting in death.

Contact Peggy Lowe at (303) 892-5482 or

© Rocky Mountain News


Pound Pup Legacy