Two days before 19-month-old Vincent Hill died from severe abuse, his 20-year-old mother became upset with how he was eating, a prosecutor said in court Thursday.
After his death, Katheryn Nycole Dale admitted to investigators that she stuck a fork into his mouth in a way that could have caused injuries, Harvey County Attorney David Yoder said at a hearing where Dale pleaded no contest to some of the charges related to the toddler's death.
Dale also told detectives that she slapped her son on the face and grabbed him under his chin, where he ended up with bruises, Yoder said.
Then on March 27, the last day of Vincent's life, she said she left him alone for the day with her boyfriend, Chad Carr, knowing that the boy was in danger — that Carr had in the past hit the boy and stuffed a cloth, rag or shirt in Vincent's mouth, Yoder said. Carr put things in the toddler's mouth to stifle his crying, according to testimony at a previous hearing.
An autopsy found that Vincent died from a combination of suffocation and a cruel beating,
During the hearing Thursday, Dale, now 21, pleaded no contest to two charges she had been facing: child abuse and aggravated child endangerment, both felonies. As part of a plea agreement, Yoder dropped a charge of aggravated battery and a charge of child endangerment against Dale.
Although a no-contest plea is not an admission of guilt, it has the same result as a guilty plea — a conviction. A defendant often pleads no contest to take advantage of a plea agreement offered by the state.
In Dale's case, the purpose of the plea agreement was to gain her cooperation in the murder case against Carr, and she is expected to testify at his trial, Yoder said after the hearing.
Her attorney, Greg Barker, said, "She's been cooperating all along" with authorities.
During the hearing, Barker didn't object to the factual basis for the charges as described by Yoder.
After the hearing, Barker said it's important to know the context in which Dale gave information that has been used against her. Barker said that Dale spoke with investigators within hours of learning that her "baby had been murdered, while she's still in a state of emotional trauma, without any benefit of counsel." He described his client as "a 20-year-old girl" being interrogated by investigators and asked to help explain Vincent's injuries.
He said that Dale felt she had to "come up with some sort of an explanation about how they (the injuries) possibly could have happened."
"We pleaded no contest because she doesn't know for a fact today if she caused any of these injuries."
Barker said it "would be impossible to find a fair jury in the state of Kansas because of the hailstorm of pretrial publicity."
As for the incident involving the fork, he said, his client was feeding her son medication mixed with food, he spit it out and she grabbed his chin and poked the food back into his mouth with a fork —"as parents often do."
She believes she didn't cause most of the injuries "or any of the fatal or serious injuries," Barker said.
Yoder, the prosecutor, said there is no evidence that Dale struck her son or injured him on the day he was pronounced dead at Newton Medical Center after being rushed there with severe injuries.
Yoder said he couldn't speculate on what sentence Dale could receive, that it is up to a judge. The plea agreement doesn't include a sentencing recommendation from Yoder.
Because Dale doesn't appear to have any felony convictions, she could face anything from probation to, realistically, 31 to 38 months in prison for the abuse conviction in her son's case and five to eight months for the endangerment conviction, Yoder said.
Her sentencing has been set for Sept. 30.
Meanwhile, Barker asked that his client be able to be released on an own-recognizance bond. Yoder opposed that, saying it is a "serious case" and that Dale's $50,000 bond is appropriate.
Judge Joe Dickinson, noting that two of the charges against her have been dismissed, lowered her bond to $25,000. It wasn't clear if Dale, dressed Thursday in her orange jail jumpsuit, would be able to post the lower bond.
At times during the hearing, during Yoder's description of the case against Dale, she appeared to wipe away tears.
Carr, the boyfriend who had been living with Dale and her young son at a North Newton duplex, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, aggravated battery and child abuse in Vincent's death. Carr remains in jail on a bond of $375,000. He faces an Aug. 18 pre-trial hearing.
At Carr's preliminary hearing earlier this month, a deputy coroner testified that an autopsy and follow-up investigation showed that Vincent died from a brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen, most likely from suffocation. The brain injury was associated with multiple blunt-force injuries over Vincent's body, the official said.
According to other testimony at Carr's hearing, Dale was away from home the day her son died, attending a baby shower in Wichita.