BEULAH, Mich. (AP) — Kelli Stapleton met the legal definition of insanity when attempting to kill herself and her autistic daughter, a forensic psychiatrist said Tuesday, while Stapleton's ex-husband testified that she had become increasingly irrational and "crazy."
Defense witnesses testified at length about the Michigan woman's desperate struggle to raise the sometimes-violent child and Stapleton's growing fears after suffering repeated assaults, some severe enough to require hospital treatment.
She pleaded guilty last month to first-degree child abuse, admitting she drove daughter Isabelle to an isolated Benzie County spot in 2013, gave her sleep-inducing medication and placed two lit charcoal grills inside their van. Both survived although Isabelle, now 15, still has brain damage.
Circuit Judge James Batzer had planned to impose a sentence Tuesday, but extended the hearing until Wednesday to allow time for closing statements from Stapleton and attorneys.
Dr. Carole Lieberman, the psychiatrist, said by the time of the failed murder-suicide, Stapleton's mental condition had so deteriorated that she considered it a merciful act.
"Kelli did not intend to kill Issy," Lieberman said, referring to the girl by her nickname. "She intended to take her to heaven. ... It was the only option she felt was left."
She said her examination of Stapleton and a review of medical records justified a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder, among other mental illnesses and trauma from brain injury.
Stapleton, 46, had a chaotic childhood and considered suicide several times through the years, Lieberman said, adding that she should have gotten help but was focused on her daughter.
"Kelli's preoccupation ... in life was to try to cure her from autism or at least make her much better," Lieberman said. "She did everything."
Matthew Stapleton, a school principal and football coach in the adjacent Lake Michigan communities of Frankfort and Elberta, said he had recently obtained a divorce from Kelli Stapleton and did not condone his ex-wife's actions.
"It is never OK to murder a child, whatever the circumstances," he said, describing Isabelle as "beautiful and smart and she is not a monster ... she is not broken and she did not do anything wrong."
Still, he acknowledged his wife had become terrified of her daughter and sometimes spoke of wanting to die.
"Kelli was unstable. Kelli was crazy," Matthew Stapleton said. "In my opinion, Kelli had reached her breaking point."
Two other mothers of autistic children who are friends with Stapleton told Batzer of their own struggles. Lisa Sain, of Genessee County, wept as she described driving in a car with her son, intending to crash into a train but changing her mind at the last minute.
"I've been in her shoes," Sain said. "I have not crossed that line. But it doesn't mean I haven't thought about it."