Toddler's death brings year in jail

Date: 2004-07-17

By Jill Fahy

Laura Higginbotham, a 37-year-old woman accused of involuntary manslaughter for the 1998 death of her 3-year- old adopted daughter, pleaded no contest in court Friday in exchange for a one-year prison sentence.

Higginbotham cried quietly as Judge Ben Joseph sentenced her to four to 10 years in prison in Vermont District Court in Burlington. All but one of those years have been suspended under the plea agreement first offered in April.

Joseph questioned Higginbotham extensively to make sure she understood the rights she was waiving by pleading no contest and that her admission was voluntary. When asked if she would like to make a statement, Higginbotham said, "No, thank you" and began to sob.

She was charged in 2001 with the death of her daughter, Logan, nearly three years after girl died of a massive head injury that caused her brain to swell. Higginbotham had claimed the child fell off a bed and hit her head on a plastic hobby horse.

The case was investigated in 1998, but no charges were filed. Police reopened the case three years later and Higginbotham was charged in May 2001 with involuntary manslaughter.

Higginbotham's attorney, John Pacht, said his client wanted to take the plea agreement because it allowed her to retain custody of her other adopted daughter Layne, now 8. Also, the strain of the past six years has been "overwhelming" for Higginbotham, Pacht added.

Pacht said he understood Higginbotham's desire to plead no contest, but he didn't recommend it.

"This is a case not only where the evidence was weak, but we may very well be dealing with an innocent person," Pacht said. This was a case, he said, "of a very sick child who died tragically."

Chittenden County State's Attorney Robert Simpson, who said the prosecution didn't have better than a "50/50 chance" of winning the case, told the court it was "more important to establish a record that there was a crime and that someone will be held responsible."

Under the plea deal, Higginbotham must remain on probation after prison until Layne turns 18, and she must continue therapy. Also, Higginbotham will not be allowed to be a sole baby-sitter or caregiver to anyone other than her daughter.

Higginbotham had been free on on $20,000 bail since her arrest, living at her home in Shelburne with husband, David Hall, and Layne.

Before the hearing, Higginbotham stood outside the courtroom quietly saying goodbye to a group of friends. They formed a circle around Higginbotham, who was embraced by her husband.

Pacht said he planned to drive Higginbotham to prison Friday afternoon.

Contact Jill Fahy at 660-1898 or jfahy@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com

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