SALT LAKE CITY — Marina Navarro wasn't in the courtroom when she was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison on murder charges Monday.
She said, through a letter read by her attorney, that she wanted the hearing to be about Vanessa Hart, the 4-year-old girl she beat to death.
"I loved Vanessa and never meant for any of this to happen," the 22-year-old Kearns woman wrote. "I carry my responsibility like Atlas carried the world — always on my shoulders."
Navarro was then sentenced by 3rd District Judge Robert Faust for one count of murder, a first-degree felony — a charge to which Navarro pleaded guilty in July. In exchange for the woman's plea, the charge was reduced from a capital offense, which could have led to the death penalty.
Faust also ordered that the woman pay almost $10,000 in restitution.
Navarro was baby-sitting Vanessa and the girl's younger brother, Joseph, on June 13, 2010, while her boyfriend — the children's father, Clinton Joseph Hart — was at work. Navarro, who prosecutors say routinely complained about the little girl, sent Clinton Hart a text message that day saying Vanessa had fallen down the stairs, was lethargic and was having a hard time breathing.
He returned to find his daughter unresponsive, and she later died from what doctors at Primary Children's Medical Center described as "multiple severe injuries," including head trauma and swelling of her brain.
In the letter, Navarro told the judge that she loved Vanessa, often waking up with her in the night. "I made her nightmares go away," the woman wrote. She said she couldn't ask for forgiveness, as she is unable to even forgive herself.
"I'm asking for everyone else to know that I'm sorry," Navarro wrote.
Her attorney, Denise Porter, said her client has a "deep and abiding remorse" for her conduct and will "spend her life trying to atone" for the child's death.
But the girl's mother, Stephanie Alfaro — who visits her oldest child at a cemetery every Friday, struggling to move because she feels her daughter is near — wasn't buying it.
"I don't believe any of it," Alfaro said of Navarro's words. "I kind of feel she maybe didn't want to show her face, have to look at everybody. I think the honest thing is she didn't want to show up today."
Alfaro asked Faust to sentence Navarro to death, saying that if Vanessa were here, she would want to see that justice was served.
"There are so many ways (Navarro) could have avoided what happened," Alfaro said.
Instead, she said after the hearing, there was no one to protect her daughter. She had not seen her child in almost a year when she was called to the hospital.
"The last time I remember seeing my daughter was in the hospital when she was dying," Alfaro said.
Because she and Hart have been undergoing a divorce for the past three years, they both had legal custody to their two children. When Clinton Hart took her children, she said she contacted multiple police agencies, in addition to the courts, to try and track them down.
"I didn't know where (Vanessa and Anthony) lived, where they slept at night," she recounted of the time preceding Vanessa's death. "(Phone records show) ... every day for a full year, I texted, called my husband."
She said Clinton Hart always had an excuse for why he couldn't bring her the children or meet her. But even though she never knew him to spank or hurt the children, she feels he ultimately failed Vanessa.
"Nobody protected my daughter," Alfaro said.
Clinton Hart was also initially charged with murder, but pleaded guilty to child abuse homicide and three counts of child abuse, second-degree felonies, and was sentenced to four concurrent sentences of one to 15 years in prison.
The reduced charge came after attorneys agreed that while Hart may have known the abuse, he wasn't home when the fatal injuries were inflicted. Still, prosecutor Rob Parrish said the case is an example of how "some people should never be around children." He pointed to the lack of parenting skills Clinton Hart and Navarro had.
"(Vanessa) should be a happy, vibrant child of 6," he said. "That's the real tragedy."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company