The Utah Supreme Court upheld a child abuse homicide conviction Tuesday against a Springville woman who fatally force-fed her daughter nearly a gallon of water.
In October 2005, a jury found 32-year-old Jennete Killpack guilty of child abuse homicide and acquitted her husband Richard, 40, in the June 9, 2005, death of the couple's daughter, Cassandra. Killpack received a sentence of one to 15 years in prison but appealed the ruling, raising five issues, including arguments that the jury was not properly instructed and the court should not have admitted evidence detailing Killpack's history of abusing Cassandra.
According to an opinion handed down by Utah Supreme Court Associate Chief Matthew Durrant, the justices unanimously upheld the lower court's ruling against Killpack.
"Killpack's prior treatment of Cassandra included episodes of choking, hitting and force-feeding, some of which resulted in serious injury to Cassandra," Durrant wrote in his opinion. "These incidents all tend to establish that Killpack had a specific pattern of disregarding substantial and unjustifiable risks of harm to her child, and thus her final act of forcing Cassandra to ingest an excessive amount of water was not an accident."
In July 1999, Killpack and her husband adopted then 21-month-old Cassandra. The child soon developed behavioral problems, such as refusing to eat, hoarding food and urinating at inappropriate times. The Killpacks consulted a psychologist, who diagnosed Cassandra with reactive attachment disorder. Another specialist confirmed the diagnosis and recommended medication.
The Killpacks refused and started taking Cassandra to the Cascade Center for Family Growth in Orem. The Killpacks contend therapists there suggested they read a book that promotes "adverse therapy" treatment that asserts a child's misbehavior can be cured by repeating a particular misbehavior "in excess."
Killpack responded to Cassandra's misbehavior by "severely disciplining" the child, including hitting her with a metal spoon, backhanding her, choking her because she would not eat, force-feeding her, biting her and forcing her to drink water until "she spit up and urinated uncontrollably."
On June 9, 2005, Killpack caught Cassandra stealing a drink of Kool-Aid from her adopted sister, and Killpack forced Cassandra to drink water until she refused to drink any more. Then Killpack tied her hands behind her and forced her to continue drinking. Richard came home and his wife had him hold Cassandra's arms while she forced more water down the girl's throat.
The Killpacks then made Cassandra do exercise, including running, jumping and sit-ups. The child vomited and said she couldn't keep her legs from shaking and her head hurt. She later collapsed. Richard called 911, and emergency medical workers found Cassandra unconscious with a distended stomach and pink foam frothing from her mouth.
Doctors at Primary Children's Medical Center declared Cassandra dead the next morning. They said symptoms of her death pointed to water intoxication, which results from being forced to drink an excessive amount of water. Medical experts testified she had been forced to drink more than four quarts of water.
At trial, Killpack argued Cassandra died from accidental head trauma, and she asserted her actions were justified because they were used to discipline Cassandra as part of a reasonable treatment program.
A jury found Killpack guilty of child abuse homicide, but she appealed the decision, raising five issues:
• Whether the jury was properly instructed on the meaning of acting "recklessly."
• Whether the trial court properly rejected jury instruction that child abuse homicide cannot result from injuries inflicted by a parent if those injuries are caused by the parent's (a) reasonable child care choices or (b) reasonable treatment of the child's medical condition.
• Whether the trial court properly admitted evidence of Killpack's prior bad acts.
• Whether the trial court committed cumulative error warranting the reversal of Killpack's conviction.
• Whether the trial court abused its discretion during sentencing by refusing to grant Killpack's request for probation.The Utah Supreme Court ruled against all of Killpack's issues of appeal and upheld the sentence of one to 15 years in prison, stating, "The trial court noted that both the 'catastrophic events of the last week of Cassandra's life' and Killpack's refusal to acknowledge full responsibility for her actions justified the sentence."