BEULAH, Mich. (AP) — A judge Wednesday sentenced the mother of an autistic Michigan teenager to 10-22 years in prison for what the woman described as a failed murder-suicide attempt brought on by despair after years of violent attacks by her child and failure to find affordable and effective treatment.
Kelli Rai Stapleton, 46, pleaded guilty last month to first-degree child abuse in a bargain with prosecutors who dismissed an attempted murder charge. She admitted driving her daughter Isabelle to an isolated spot in rural northern Michigan in September 2013, giving her a sleep-inducing drug and placing two charcoal-burning grills inside their van.
Both survived, although Isabelle, now 15, was in a coma for four days and suffered brain damage. Although largely recovered, she still has memory loss and problems with balance.
Circuit Judge James Batzer ordered Stapleton to serve a minimum of 10 years before becoming eligible for parole, though she will get credit for the 399 days she's already served. He set her maximum sentence at 22 years.
Her body trembling and her voice breaking, Stapleton apologized repeatedly before her sentencing to her children, her former husband, her friends and others. Although her attorney requested probation and community service, Stapleton herself asked Batzer for a 15-year sentence — "one year for every year of (Isabelle's) life that I tried to take."
"I will spend each moment of each day in anguish for my actions and gratitude for the miracle that brought Issy back," Stapleton said, referring to her daughter by her nickname.
"She is not a monster," Stapleton said. "I am. ... I always have and will always love her beyond measure."
Batzer rejected the suggestion that Stapleton had faked her suicide attempt and simply wanted to be rid of her daughter. He said that Stapleton might have been mentally ill but noted that she had decided against going to trial on an insanity defense.
"We can have sympathy," Batzer said. But he described Stapleton's actions as "profoundly wrong" and deserving of "a severe price."
Defense attorney Heidi Hodek said she was disappointed and that imprisoning Stapleton wouldn't help anyone. Prosecutor Sara Swanson said Stapleton deserved punishment and the sentence should serve as a deterrent.
"We can't as a society say that it's OK to try to kill your children," Swanson said.
Stapleton and her former husband, Matthew, a school principal who recently obtained a divorce, were prominent figures in the adjacent Lake Michigan communities of Elberta, where they lived, and Frankfort. In addition to Isabelle, they have another daughter and a son.
On Wednesday, Hodek read aloud a letter from Matthew Stapleton, written on behalf of him and his children, which said, "We know and understand in our hearts that she needs help, not an extended amount of jail time."
Kelli Stapleton became well known as an outspoken advocate for autism awareness and blogged about the challenges of finding proper help for Isabelle.
Stapleton wrote in the summer of 2013 that she was "suffering from a severe case of battle fatigue" after the family's insurance company stopped paying for a treatment program and local officials changed Isabelle's education plan.
She later told authorities she had concluded the best solution would be if she and her daughter "went to heaven."
During a three-day sentencing hearing, friends and relatives said Stapleton was a loving but broken mother, while other family members described her as selfish and devious.
Batzer said he had received letters from around the nation about the case, which generated sharp debate among advocates of those with disabilities.
Ari Ne'eman, president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, argued for sentencing Stapleton "the same way a mother of a non-disabled child would be sentenced for a comparable crime."
Forensic psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, who examined Stapleton in July, testified that Stapleton was suffering from post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorders and was legally insane when attempting the murder-suicide.