WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (AP) — A woman convicted of fatally poisoning her 5-year-old son with salt in his hospital feeding tube got a break on her murder sentence Wednesday because she suffers from a mental illness she has refused to acknowledge, the judge said.
Lacey Spears, 27, of Scottsville, Kentucky, was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison for the 2014 death of Garnett-Paul Spears at a suburban New York hospital.
Prosecutors said the mother force-fed high concentrations of sodium through the boy's stomach tube because she craved the attention his illness brought to her, especially through her heavy posting on social media.
Acting state Supreme Court Justice Robert Neary said Spears' crime was "unfathomable in its cruelty" and brought her son "five years of torment and pain." But he said he was not imposing the maximum 25 years to life because "one does not have to be a psychiatrist to realize you suffer from Munchausen by proxy."
He said he was offering "something you did not exhibit toward your son — mercy."
Munchausen by proxy, now known clinically as factitious disorder imposed on another, is a disorder in which, in some cases, caretakers purposely but secretly harm children and then enjoy the attention and sympathy they receive.
The judge said he hoped to shine a spotlight on the illness and encourage public reporting of it.
Spears' attorneys had refused to raise the disorder as a defense, and both sides agreed not to mention it at trial. Her attorneys had denied she ever did anything to harm the boy.
After the sentencing, defense lawyer Stephen Riebling said it was odd for the judge to bring it up because Spears "hasn't been diagnosed with any mental illness."
Spears seemed to bristle when the judge said he hoped she would seek out help. She turned down a chance to address him and displayed no emotion at the moment of sentencing. She did not testify at her trial.
The defense, which filed an appeal of Spears' conviction immediately after the sentencing, had asked the judge for an even lighter sentence, the minimum 15 years to life. Defense lawyer David Sachs said Spears was "a hard-working single mother who gave her son unconditional love."
But prosecutor Doreen Lloyd, arguing for the maximum sentence, told the judge that Spears' actions "were inhuman, they were despicable and they were evil."
She said jurors and others who saw hospital-room video recordings showing Garnett in pain after being fed salt "will never be able to erase those images from their minds."
Spears used the boy's feeding tube "as a weapon to kill him," Lloyd said.
Garnett's feeding tube had been in place since infancy, when his mother told doctors he couldn't keep food down.
Days before his death, Spears brought her son to the hospital and reported he was suffering seizures. Doctors found him to be well until his sodium levels rose to extremes. The prosecution alleged Spears took the boy into a bathroom twice to push salt through the tube.
"Garnett Spears should be in school today, and he's not because his mother murdered him," she told the judge.
Spears, an Alabama native, was living with her son in Chestnut Ridge, New York, when he died. She moved to Kentucky afterward and was living there when she was arrested.
Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore said after the sentencing that Garnett "was forced to suffer through repeated hospitalizations, unneeded surgical procedures and ultimately poisoning with salt, all at the hands of the one person who should have been his ultimate protector: his mother."