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Split verdict surprises and stuns the Killpacks

Jury convicts mother but acquits father in girl's death

Published: Thursday, Oct. 13 2005 9:31 a.m. MDT

Richard Killpack, left, and his wife, Jennete, with back to camera, are comforted by friends and family members after Tuesday's split verdict.

Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News

PROVO — Richard Killpack buried his face in his hands. His wife, Jennete, stared straight ahead, seemingly in shock.

After a 3 1/2-week trial, it took a Provo jury almost six hours Tuesday to find Jennete Killpack, 29, guilty of killing her 4-year-old daughter in June 2002. Richard Killpack was found not guilty.

The split verdict surprised Utah County prosecutors, who told the eight-member jury that Richard Killpack, 37, was equally culpable of child abuse homicide because he helped his wife force water down their adopted daughter's throat on June 9, 2002. Cassandra Killpack died later that night of what medical personnel classified as forced water intoxication, which caused her brain to swell and the sodium in her body to drop to fatal levels.

The Springville couple, who have four other children, left the courtroom without speaking to reporters. Jennete Killpack, who will be sentenced Dec. 7, could serve up to 15 years in prison.

"Maybe she's too honest for her own good," her lawyer, Michael Esplin, said after the verdict. Esplin said prior acts that Jennete Killpack admitted to during a police interview — including choking her daughter and pushing her against a toilet, both of which caused bruises — may have been a factor in the jury's decision.

The admission of those acts as evidence during the trial may be grounds for appeal, but Esplin said it's too early to say what he will do next, or whether his client wants another trial.

Shelden Carter, Richard Killpack's lawyer, called his client's victory "the worst win" of his legal career.

"I've never felt so bad in winning, ever," he said. "This is sad. It's a sad case."

The prosecution seemed pleased with the verdict, even though as Utah County deputy attorney Sherry Ragan said, "It doesn't bring the girl back."

Jury members left without speaking to reporters. Prior to closing arguments earlier Tuesday, 4th District Judge Claudia Laycock told the jury a guilty verdict would mean Cassandra Killpack's death was the result of reckless and willful child abuse.

The jury did not have to find that the Killpacks meant to kill their daughter, prosecutors said, only that they abused her with reckless disregard for the consequences.

Ragan described the final moments of the little girl's life as torture.

"She was struggling for breath. Her arms were tied behind her. She was gritting her teeth as her parents tried to force more water down her," she said.

Medical experts for the prosecution testified during the trial that Cassandra Killpack was made to drink as much as a gallon of water and that the force-feeding began about six hours before paramedics responded to the Killpacks' home, where they found the 4-year-old near death.

But defense attorneys said the Killpacks gave the girl just 20 ounces of water during a one-hour period, unaware it could be harmful. They also said the water discipline method had been approved by therapists who were treating the girl for reactive attachment disorder, a mental illness that can affect adopted children.

"There are some parents who abuse their children. These are not those parents," Esplin said.

Esplin and Carter described the Killpacks as loving parents who refused to give up on their daughter, even as her mental illness became more difficult to manage.

Because Cassandra refused to sleep under a blanket, Jennete Killpack would stay awake until the girl fell asleep so she could cover her with a blanket.

"That's exemplary of the type of treatment Cassandra would receive," Esplin said.

But prosecutors said the Killpacks were aware of the risks in giving their daughter too much water. In a police interview after Cassandra's death, Richard Killpack said his wife had forced Cassandra to drink water before, causing her to vomit, and that he felt it was dangerous.

Utah County deputy attorney Dave Sturgill also urged jurors to disregard the Killpacks' testimony that the water discipline method had the approval of therapists at the Cascade Center for Family Growth, a controversial Orem clinic that has since closed.

"Don't forget this was Jennete's idea, and it was implemented before they met with (Cascade)," he said.

Sturgill and Ragan also told jurors to disregard the Killpacks' explanations for the girl's death — which ranged from head trauma to heat exhaustion to mistakes made by medical personnel treating her.

"All credible medical evidence indicates Cassandra died of forced water intoxication . . . ," Ragan said. "The other explanations for how Cassandra died are not consistent with medical or other evidence."

Ragan said the Killpacks' varying explanations for the girl's death amounted to a refusal to accept responsibility for their actions. Defense attorneys argued the Killpacks were simply searching for answers. They also said medical personnel hastily concluded Cassandra had died of forced water intoxication without considering other possibilities, including head trauma and a psychological condition that made the girl crave water.

"I don't think they know, I don't think we know . . . that this death was caused by water intoxication," Esplin said.

The Killpacks appeared stunned by the verdict. They lingered in the courtroom after prosectors had left, hugging teary-eyed family and friends

"I thought we created reasonable doubt," Esplin said. "Obviously the jury disagreed."


E-mail: jhyde@desnews.com

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