TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — A northern Michigan woman accused of trying to kill her autistic 14-year-old daughter after describing in an online blog the family's struggles to raise her pleaded guilty Tuesday to first-degree child abuse.
Kelli Stapleton, 46, entered the plea the day before she was scheduled for trial in Benzie County Circuit Court on a charge of attempted murder — a year after police said she drove daughter Isabelle to an isolated spot, gave her sleep-inducing medication and ignited charcoal in two grills inside a van, intending to kill both of them.
Isabelle has recovered after suffering carbon-monoxide poisoning that left her in a coma for several days, county prosecutor Sara Swanson said.
"This was an extremely serious incident which could have resulted in the death of an innocent child," Swanson said. "A conviction of this felony carrying a maximum penalty of life in prison, and the prison sentence we expect it to carry, is the right resolution for the community, the defendant, and our victim, Isabelle."
A sentencing date was not immediately scheduled, said Jennifer Tang-Anderson, chief assistant prosecutor. Judge James Batzer will receive recommendations on the matter from attorneys on both sides as well as the county probation office.
Stapleton had intended to offer an insanity plea if the case had gone to trial but wanted a quicker conclusion to the case, defense attorney Heidi Hodek said.
"Ultimately, Kelli didn't want to put her family through any more," Hodek said.
The family is well known in the rural Lake Michigan county about 250 miles northwest of Detroit. Stapleton's husband, Matthew Stapleton, who filed for divorce after the murder-suicide attempt, is a high school principal. Kelli Stapleton was an advocate for autism awareness and kept a blog, "The Status Woe," that updated readers about the challenges of finding and affording proper treatment for Isabelle, who was prone to violent outbursts.
Stapleton wrote last summer that her daughter, nicknamed Issy, had completed an intense program for severely autistic children near Kalamazoo. But Stapleton said she was "suffering from a severe case of battle fatigue" after local school officials changed Issy's education plan.
Stapleton later told authorities she had concluded the best solution would be if she and Issy "went to heaven," according to court documents obtained by the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
In court Tuesday, Stapleton told Batzer she had intended to kill herself and her daughter, the Record-Eagle reported.
She was found mentally fit to stand trial. But Carole Lieberman, a forensic psychiatrist from Beverly Hills, California, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that she examined Stapleton in July and was prepared to testify that Stapleton was legally insane when attempting the murder-suicide.
Lieberman said she had diagnosed Stapleton with several mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by years of psychological wear and physical attacks, including two occasions when her daughter knocked her unconscious.
"Kelli has been living in a war zone," Lieberman said. "Really, it's the culmination of 13 years of having doors slammed in her face and not getting help."
She said she plans to recommend that Stapleton receive the minimum sentence and psychiatric treatment.
Ari Ne'eman, president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, said Stapleton should be sentenced "the same way a mother of a non-disabled child would be sentenced for a comparable crime."
Lenient treatment and sympathetic portrayal of parents who harm autistic children "devalues autistic life and sets the stage for copycat crimes," Ne'eman said.
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