JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A Missouri teenager who confessed to murdering a young neighbor girl was described as a thrill killer by prosecutors and a mentally disturbed child by her defense attorneys as a judge heard arguments Tuesday on whether she should be sentenced to life in prison or something less.
The small courtroom in Missouri's capital city descended into chaos as Prosecutor Mark Richardson was making an impassioned, final request for a lifelong sentence for Alyssa Bustamante, who pleaded guilty to murdering 9-year-old Elizabeth Olten in October 2009.
Bustamante's grandmother, tears flowing from her eyes, stormed out of the courtroom, followed by her grandfather. That prompted Bustamante — who had been staring blankly downward as Richardson recounted her crime — to begin silently crying for the first time in her court proceedings that have spanned more than two years.
Then as Cole County Circuit Judge Judge Pat Joyce announced that she would reveal her sentence on Wednesday, Elizabeth's grandmother interrupted and cried out from her wheelchair.
"I think Alyssa should get out of jail the same day Elizabeth gets out of the grave!" declared the grandmother, whom a prosecutor later identified as Sandy Corn.
The disorder capped what was an emotional, two-day sentencing hearing highlighted by repeated references to words Bustamante — then age 15 — had written in her diary on the night she strangled, slit the throat and repeatedly stabbed Elizabeth. Bustamante wrote that it was an "ahmazing" and "pretty enjoyable" experience, ending the entry by saying: "I gotta go to church now...lol."
"The motive has to be the most senseless, reprehensible that could be in humankind, and that is to take a life for a thrill," Richardson said.
Richardson recounted in the courtroom how hundreds of volunteers had searched for Elizabeth near the rural town of St. Martins as Bustamante calmly lied — at least initially — to investigators about the girl's whereabouts.
The prosecutor urged the judge to impose the maximum for second-degree murder — life in prison with the possibility of parole — and an additional 71 years in prison for armed criminal action, which he said would have matched the remaining life expectancy of Elizabeth. Richardson also urged that the sentences be served consecutively, meaning that the 18-year-old Bustamante would be an elderly woman before she ever got a chance at parole.
Bustamante's attorney, Donald Catlett, countered that the sentences should run concurrently and that the judge should take into consideration a pre-sentencing report prepared by the state Division of Probation and Parole that apparently suggests something less than a life sentence. The judge said the recommendation must remain confidential.
Catlett cited the testimony Tuesday of mental health professionals who described Bustamante as a "psychologically damaged" and "severely emotionally disturbed" child. They recounted her family's history with drug abuse, mental disorders and suicide attempts, noting her father was in prison and her mother had abandoned her — though she was in the courtroom Tuesday for the first time. Various mental health professionals testified over the course of the two-day hearing that Bustamante suffers from a major depression disorder and displays the features of a borderline personality disorder. Some also said she shows early signs of a bipolar disorder.
Bustamante began taking the anti-depressant drug Prozac after a suicide attempt on Labor Day 2007 at the start of her eighth grade year. Her dosage of the medication had been increased just two weeks before she murdered Elizabeth. Bustamante's attorneys presented evidence from a psychiatrist who testified that Prozac could have been a "major contributing factor" in the slaying — a theory rejected by a prosecution psychiatrist who insisted there was no scientific evidence of Prozac causing homicides, or even increasing aggression.
Catlett noted that Bustamante had taken responsibility for her actions in her guilty plea last month. But he suggested the murder might have been averted if a Jefferson City mental health care facility had done a better job of treating her. Asking for leniency from the judge, Catlett said: "Mental illness can cause disastrous effects."
Each time defense attorneys elicited testimony about Bustamante's troubled childhood, prosecutors countered by asking the mental health experts to describe what Bustamante had told them about the murder.
Those mental health officials testified that Bustamante told them she dug a grave several days in advance of the killing, then used her younger sister to lure Elizabeth outside with an invitation to play. Bustamante led Elizabeth into the woods by telling her she had a surprise for her.
The surprise turned out to be her demise. Bustamante sliced Elizabeth's throat — as the child apparently tried to resist — with a knife that had been hidden in a backpack. Bustamante also strangled Elizabeth to the point of unconsciousness, then repeatedly stabbed Elizabeth in the chest. She was buried in a shallow grave.