Court upholds sentence for child's death

Date: 2008-07-22

Court upholds sentence for child's death

Jeremy Duda
DAILY HERALD  

The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld Jennete Killpack's conviction and sentence for the child abuse death of her daughter.
Killpack was convicted of child abuse homicide in 2005 and sentenced to 1-15 years in prison over the death of her 4-year-old adopted daughter. Cassandra Killpack died in 2002 after her mother forced her to drink more than 2.5 liters of water as a punishment. In arguments before the Supreme Court in February, Killpack's attorney, Mike Esplin, said she was following professional advice in forcing the girl to drink large amounts of water to correct behavioral problems.

Killpack raised five issues in her appeal, including jury instructions proposed by her defense attorney at trial that would have limited the jury's ability to find her guilty of homicide, and whether the trial court improperly admitted evidence of prior child abuse. The Supreme Court rejected all five arguments.

Assistant Attorney General Laura Dupaix said the Supreme Court made the right decision.

"The bottom line was this was a really tragic case, but I think that the Supreme Court came to the right decision on all the issues that were raised. I think they were correct legally, and I think the final result was just," she said.

Defense attorney Mike Esplin could not be reached for comment.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said Killpack did not present sufficient evidence to support a medical treatment defense. One of her proposed jury instructions that was rejected stipulated that a parent cannot be convicted of child abuse homicide if the death was the result of reasonable choices made for purposes of child care or in treating a child's medical condition, including by the use of spiritual means instead of medical treatment.

The court wrote in its ruling that state child abuse statutes include no such defense, and even if they did, Killpack still would have had to prove that her treatment of her daughter was reasonable.

"In finding her guilty of child abuse homicide, the jury found that Killpack had behaved recklessly towards Cassandra and, therefore, necessarily concluded that Killpack's actions were not reasonable," the ruling read.

The court also ruled that evidence of prior abuse that was presented at trial was relevant, and that the state needed only to prove that Killpack acted with conscious disregard of the risk of child abuse, not that she acted recklessly as defined by homicide statutes.

Killpack argued in her appeal that admitting evidence of prior bad acts prejudiced the jury against her. The trial court allowed the evidence on the grounds that it established a pattern of behavior and showed that the events leading to Cassandra's death were not the result of an accident or mistake.

Killpack and her husband, Richard, adopted 21-month-old Cassandra in 1999. Years after the adoption, the girl began having behavioral problems such as refusing to eat at mealtimes, hoarding and sneaking food, and urinating at inappropriate times. A psychologist diagnosed Cassandra with a condition called Reactive Attachment Disorder.

The couple followed the treatment recommendations suggested in a book, which included forcing the child to repeat the offensive behavior "in excess," according to the Supreme Court ruling. Killpack said she responded to the strain that Cassandra's behavior put on her relationship with her husband by choking her when she refused to eat, force feeding her, biting her and forcing her to drink water to the point that she would vomit and urinate uncontrollably.

The day Cassandra died, Killpack tied her hands behind her back and forced her to drink water as punishment for "sneaking" a glass of Kool-Aid, the ruling said. After the girl couldn't drink any more water, Killpack forced her to do exercises such as running, jumping and sit-ups. Afterward, Cassandra lost consciousness and collapsed, prompting Richard to call 911.

Jeremy Duda can be reached at 344-2561 or jduda@heraldextra.com.

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