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Mother Sentenced to 25 Years


Woman Had Admitted Killing Adopted Russian Daughter

Theresa Vargas
Washington Post

For the murder of her 2-year-old adopted Russian daughter, Peggy Sue Hilt will serve 25 years in jail, under a sentence imposed yesterday by a Prince William County judge.

"I think your conduct, at its core, is inexplicable, completely inexplicable," Circuit Court Judge William D. Hamblen said. "The child's death was not the product of a single act, a single blow. Her injuries were the result of a course of conduct over an extended period of time."

And only Hilt, he added, knows the extent of it.

Hilt, 34, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in March after telling police that she punched, kicked and choked Nina Hilt at their Wake Forest, N.C., home during a rage in July. The child died a day later in Prince William, where the family was visiting friends.

"I hurt Nina," Hilt told authorities at the time. "I choked her, and I hit her and hit her."

The Prince William case has affected other U.S. families hoping to adopt. Russian officials initially called for a moratorium on U.S. adoptions after the death of Nina, who was the 14th adopted Russian child killed in the United States. Several Russian journalists were at the courthouse yesterday.

As Hilt stood in the courtroom awaiting her sentence, she struggled to talk. When asked whether she had anything to say, she paused for several minutes and then uttered, in a barely audible voice, "I'm sorry doesn't even come close . . . " before breaking into a mumble.

"She prepared to make a statement," her attorney, William Stephens, said afterward. "The emotion of the event would not allow her to do it."

Stephens described Hilt in court as a woman without a criminal record who was besieged with many issues when she killed Nina, including depression, an addiction to alcohol that she hid from her husband and problems bonding with the child. A medical evaluation found that Hilt was not likely to kill again.

"She needed help," he said.

But Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert told the court, "Some people you just can't help."

He recited Nina's injuries: bruises on her face, on her rib cage, on her small intestine, her skull, and so on. Before dying of blunt trauma to the abdomen, the child survived for a day, he said.

"It took a long time to kill the child," Ebert said, adding that it was "a horrible, horrible case."

Ebert also reminded the court of the international ramifications of the case -- that Nina's death had created a strain between the Russian government and U.S. couples hoping to adopt.

Ebert said the court received many letters from parents across the nation saying that their adoptions have been affected by the Hilt case.

"Most of them were pretty heartbroken about it," he said. "And, for right or wrong, they blame Mrs. Hilt."

One such couple is Richard and Wanda Verne, of Jacksonville, Fla.

They were in the process of adopting two 3-year-old girls from the same region as Nina when her death stopped the proceedings indefinitely. When they learned that Hilt was sentenced to 35 years, with 10 of those years suspended -- a sentence that exceeds the guideline of 12 to 21 years -- they said the punishment should have been harsher.

"She was selfish not to get help," said Wanda Verne, 49.

They last saw the girls they planned to adopt just weeks after Hilt's death. The girls are now 5, and the Vernes said they still don't have a court date to finalize the adoption.

"For two years, they have been told mama and papa will come to get them someday," Wanda Verne said. "I'm sure they are wondering where we are."

Hilt had adopted another girl, Nataliya, from Ukraine. There were no signs that the child had been abused, police said. Stephens said yesterday that she is staying with her adoptive father's family.

2006 May 26