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Woman gets 25 years in death of tot she adopted

James Rosen, N&O Washington Bureau
MANASSAS, VA. - When it came time for Peggy Sue Hilt to make her first public comment about killing her adopted Russian daughter, she could not speak.

Before sending Hilt to prison for 25 years, Virginia Circuit Judge William D. Hamblen asked her whether she had anything to say.

Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, her dark-blond hair at her shoulder, Hilt, who worked as a dental assistant until her arrest last year, nodded slightly and tried to talk. Long moments passed before she uttered a few slow, halting words that could scarcely be heard in the hushed courtroom:

"Saying I'm sorry doesn't even come close to the way I feel," Hilt said. She could not continue.

Hilt, 34, had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death last year of her 2-year-old daughter, Nina, from a beating in their Wake Forest home. Nina died in Manassas, Va., about 36 hours after the beating. Peggy Hilt and her husband, Christopher Hilt, had driven there to visit relatives for the Fourth of July.

The case attracted a lot of attention in Russia, where Americans adopt thousands of children each year. Correspondents from the six largest Russian TV networks covered the sentencing Thursday, with camera crews camped outside the Prince William County courthouse 25 miles southwest of Washington.

Yevgeniy Khorishko, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, said embassy officials had consulted closely with U.S. counterparts about the case and were in the courtroom for the sentencing.

"It's very good that American justice has punished the person who was charged with killing a little child," Khorishko said.

In painstaking detail, prosecutor Paul Ebert described the injuries Nina suffered:

"This child had numerous bruises and at least one laceration and internal injury," Ebert told the judge in conclusion. "It took a long time to kill this child."

Hilt's lawyer, William Stephens of Manassas, described her as a closet alcoholic who started drinking when she was 12 but never sought help for her problems.

Intense grief

Saying that Hilt felt "intense grief and stress" over her conduct, Stephens said Hilt had snapped as she tried to dress Nina in their home on the morning of July 1 last year before the family's holiday trip to Virginia.

"Every parent probably here today or hearing about this, raising children, has been at wit's end," Stephens said. "She needed help. She failed to get the help."

Peggy and Christopher Hilt had adopted a Ukrainian girl, Nataliya, in April 2001, three years before they adopted Nina. Nataliya, now 5, is living with Mr. Hilt's sister, Stephens said. Peggy and Christopher Hilt probably will have an "amiable divorce," and Mr. Hilt expects to regain custody of Nataliya, Stephens said. The father has not spoken publicly.

In sentencing Hilt, Hamblen acknowledged that she had no previous criminal record. And the judge said he considers it unlikely that Hilt would kill again were she to be freed.

"I think this crime was a confluence of circumstances that will never be repeated," Hamblen said.

Not just one blow

But the judge said that Nina had not died from a single blow, but from a series of blows over an extended period. And he criticized the passage of time between the beating in North Carolina and the mother's 911 call in Virginia.

"These factors, in my view, weigh heavily against you," Hamblen said.

Hamblen then sentenced Hilt to 35 years in prison, suspended 10 years and assigned five years of probation upon release. She could be sent back to prison to serve the additional 10 years if she commits a serious crime after being released.

Stephens said after the hearing that Hilt probably will serve 21 to 22 years of the 25-year term, with the state taking into account the time she has already spent in custody. On that timetable, Hilt will be in her mid-50s when she leaves prison.

In the immediate aftermath of Nina Hilt's death last year, Russian legislators called for a freeze on Americans' adoptions of orphans, and such transactions have significantly slowed.

The Russian Education Ministry, which oversees adoptions in the vast country, announced Tuesday that only foreign and domestic companies accredited by the government will be allowed to arrange legal adoptions.

The Hilts did not use an agency when they adopted Nataliya in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in 2001, but they employed a Dallas-based agency, Adoptions International Inc., in 2004 to help adopt Nina in the Siberian city of Irkutsk.

That company is not accredited by the Russian government, a company employee said Thursday.

Kathy Friend, an American trying to adopt a child in Irkutsk, said the Hilt case has delayed many adoptions.

Hopes and dreams

"Not only did Peggy Sue Hilt kill her daughter, but she has killed the hopes and dreams of many children here in Irkutsk to be with their American-forever families," Friend said in an e-mail message.

Lee Allen, a spokesman for the National Council for Adoption in Washington, said more than 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by Americans. He cited Russian government figures showing that 12 are known to have been killed by their adoptive parents.

"It is a very small risk, but clearly one is too many," Allen said.

Washington bureau reporter Brady Averill and N&O reporter Jennifer Brevorka contributed to this report.

2006 Jul 1