Friends and family gathered at a recent child abuse sentencing hearing to share a mixed collection of testimonies– some good, others rather dismal– of what they thought about Kelli Rai Stapleton’s mothering abilities.
Stapleton, the northern Michigan autism advocate and mother of 14-year-old Isabelle who suffers from autism, pled guilty to first-degree child abuse in early September. Her plea was entered the day before she was scheduled to stand trial in the Benzie County Circuit Court for attempted murder.
The attempted murder charge stems from events that occurred over a year ago. Stapleton drove Isabelle out to an isolated spot, gave her medication to induce sleep, then locked both herself and her daughter in the family van with two burning charcoal grills, in the hopes that they would both die.
Isabelle has since recovered from the carbon-monoxide poisoning that left her in a coma for days. But Sara Swanson, the Benzie County Prosecutor, feels that although many people feel sorry for Stapleton and the hardships that her family faced in dealing with Isabelle’s severe form of autism, the consequences must fit the crime.
According to Stapleton, she did what she did because she felt that her family had gone through enough misery already. She was determined that the best solution to the problem would be for both her and Isabelle to “go to heaven.”
“The person that committed that act is not Kelli,” said Sandy Johnson, Stapleton’s stepmother. She claimed that Stapleton was “broken and desperate” after the years that the family had spent attempting to get proper help for Isabelle. She also pointed out the numerous times that Isabelle had physically assaulted Stapleton, sometimes so severely that she caused concussions.
Lisa Stieve, a close friend of Stapleton’s, corroborated this, saying that she had seen her friend with black eyes and broken bones over the years as a result of Isabelle’s attacks. According to her testimony, Stapleton always responded to Isabelle’s violence with patience and kindness.
But not everyone there had a kind word to share about the defendant. Eileen Stapleton, her mother-in-law, told a different story. “The truth is that Kelli didn’t want Issy anymore,” she told the judge. Eileen also claimed that the fact that Stapleton had exited the van on several occasions during the supposed suicide attempt should imply that she never intended for herself to die. “She is smart enough, strong enough and determined enough that if she wanted to kill herself she would be dead,” she explained.
Stapleton did undergo a mental competency exam and was found to be fit to stand trial. A forensic psychiatrist from Beverly Hills, California named Carole Lieberman came forward during the trial to defend Stapleton. She explained that Stapleton was suffering from several mental illnesses at the time of the attempted murder/suicide, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, had made a public statement that Stapleton should be sentenced in “the same way a mother of a non-disabled child would be sentenced for a comparable crime.” According to him, the lenient treatment of parents who hurt autistic children “devalues autistic life and sets the stage for copycat crimes.”
Circuit Judge James Batzer sentenced Stapleton to 10-22 years in prison, giving her credit for the 399 days that she has already served. He also ordered that she must serve a minimum of 10 years of her sentence before becoming eligible for parole.