In opening statements of Jennete Killpack's homicide trial, her attorney told jurors that she was trying to teach her 4-year-old adopted daughter that acts must have consequences when she forced the girl to drink about a gallon of water.
Now Killpack is seeking to have her one-to-15-year sentence overturned, an irony that hasn't escaped prosecutors.
During oral arguments before the Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday, Killpack's attorney Mike Esplin said she and her husband had sought advice from professionals on how to deal with Cassandra Killpack's behavioral problems. The couple was instructed by counselors at the Cascade Center for Family Growth in Orem to try "adverse therapy" in which the child is punished by giving them what they want in excess.
In this case, prosecutors say Jennete Killpack forced about a gallon of water down her adopted daughter's throat as punishment for taking a sibling's cup. On June 9, 2002, emergency medical workers were called to the Killpacks' Utah County home, where they found Cassandra unconscious with a distended belly and pink foam pouring from her mouth. She later died at Primary Children's Medical Center.
The bizarre nature of the girl's death caught national attention. The Killpacks were charged and put on trial. In October 2005 a jury found Jennete Killpack guilty of child abuse homicide and acquitted Richard Killpack.
Esplin told justices Tuesday that his client had sought advice from counselors and had read books on trying to deal with Cassandra, whom she claimed suffered from Reactive Attachment Disorder.
Justices questioned whether Killpack was advised specifically to give Cassandra water as punishment. Esplin said no, but she did learn the principle from others.
"A parent has a right to choose the course of care for their child," Esplin said.
Justice Michael Wilkins questioned had the girl put her hand on a hot stove would Killpack have followed that logic to its conclusion.
Chief Justice Christine Durham said she was troubled that evidence of prior abuse was allowed to be presented at trial, wondering if jurors may have based their verdict on that evidence rather than the charged incident.
Assistant Utah Attorney General Laura Dupaix said evidence of prior incidents of choking, force-feeding and "back handing" the girl showed a pattern of abuse that did not come from any professional advice but rather came from an abusive mother.
"This evidence completes the story," Dupaix said.The justices are expected to issue a ruling in the coming months.