Judge hears two days of testimony in Stapleton sentencing

Kelli Stapleton

Kelli Stapleton

BENZONIA — Over the course of two days, both the judge and the public heard from witnesses who painted different pictures of the situation that lead up to Kelli Stapleton’s Sept. 3, 2013 arrest and eventual guilty plea to first degree child abuse charges at her sentencing, which  was held Monday and Tuesday.

Stapleton was originally faced with charges of attempted murder when she and her autistic daughter, Issy, were found unresponsive in a smoke filled van on Sept. 3, 2013, along with two portable charcoal grills.

Stapleton has confessed she meant to take her and her daughter’s life, and has said that she wanted to “go to heaven” with Issy, in order to prevent her daughter from harming her or her other children.

Prior to the events of Sept. 3, Stapleton had written on her blog and had told various news sources about her struggles with insurance agencies to cover the care her daughter needed, and that her daughter had become increasingly violent, knocking her unconscious and attacking her other children.

The prosecution led the proceedings by calling witness to the stand who refuted Stapleton’s story of being a caring mother who was scared of her own child and had nowhere to turn.

Eileen Stapleton, mother to Kelli’s ex-husband, Matt Stapleton, told Judge James Batzer, of the 19th Circuit Court of Benzie County, that Kelli was playing to the hearts and minds of kind people and other mothers in similar situations for sympathy.

“She painted a picture of Issy as if she was a monster,” Eileen said. “Issy was smart, charming, loving, loved holidays and family gatherings. Kelly is also smart and charming, but she is not innocent; she had an agenda.”

Eileen said Kelli chose her words very carefully to make it sound like the events of Sept. 3 were the acts of a desperate mother who loved her children, but that she had planned her actions, and that she had called and told workers from the Great Lakes Center for Autism Treatment not to show up the day of the incident, as they were scheduled to do.

She also said Kelli did not intend to commit suicide.

“If she wanted to do it, she would have done it,” Eileen said.

Eileen also said that while Kelli often discussed the difficulties her and her family went though dealing with Issy and her condition, Kelli didn’t talk about the help she received.

“Kelli doesn’t talk about the trips she took to Africa, or to expositions to try and sell her book,” she said. “She doesn’t talk about the freedom she had, about the after-school caregivers and the family members that would watch the kids when she wanted to do something, or when Matt was away.”

The defense called friends of Kelli’s and several doctors who had worked with her before or after the Sept. 3 incident, who testified that she was terrified of Issy’s violent outbursts.

Dr. Carole Lieberman, a forensic psychiatrist and expert witness, said she had spent considerable time talking with Kelli, her immediate family members and friends, and that  Kelli was suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome and bi-polar disorders, as well as traumatic brain injuries from the attacks from Issy she had endured. She also said Kelli was depressed and suicidal.

She also showed a video of Issy at the treatment center, which documented one of Issy’s violent outbursts requiring several staff members, including a large male attendant, to physically restrain her.

“This is the other side of Issy; she has unpredictable outbursts of violence that people can’t control,” she said. “There were many instances of attacks, too many to count. She suffered a broken finger on one occasion. She was knocked unconscious for the first time in 2011. Since then, she has had difficulty speaking some times, she has post concussion syndrome. She was afraid for herself and her other children, especially her youngest daughter, Ainsley.”

Lieberman also discussed Kelli’s anxiety disorder and depression, starting by describing her childhood, in which a stepbrother allegedly tried to sexually assault her, a youth minister thinking she was suicidal and Kelli’s admittance to an institution in Grand Rapids for a short time. She also said Kelli’s doctor put her on antidepressants in 2001, diagnosed her with anxiety disorder and major depressive disorders in 2005, and said her family had a history of depressive disorders.

Despite this, Lieberman said Kelli focused solely on Issy, and denied herself treatment.

Lieberman also said, in Kelli’s degraded mental state, she truly believed she was taking Issy to heaven with the events of Sept. 3.

“There was no way you convince her she was killing her child; it wasn’t death,” Lieberman said. “She thought it was the kindest, gentlest thing she could do. She was out of touch with reality. She did not intend to kill Issy. She intended to take her to heaven.”

“In my opinion, she was insane when she committed these acts in the week leading up to Sept. 3,” she said.

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