Mother of girl found locked in closet says she didn’t intend to plead guilty

As she awaits sentencing, Jacole Prince has written a lengthy letter to The Kansas City Star stating that she never intended to plead guilty to abusing her malnourished daughter.

Prince insists in the 42-page letter that she is not a monster who kept the little girl known only as LP locked in a closet. She describes herself as a loving mother dedicated to protecting her children.

“I did not admit out my own mouth to the crime,” Prince wrote in the letter mailed after a Jackson County judge accepted her guilty pleas — two of them Alford pleas, meaning she acknowledged prosecutors had enough evidence to convict her — on felony charges of assault, child abuse and child endangerment. “I was suppose to had been pleading guilty for not seeking medical treatment. There is no real hard evidence to charge me 20 years, 10 years, 5 years or even two years.”

Judge John Torrence is to sentence Prince on April 25. In the deal entered Jan. 7, prosecutors agreed to cap the prison time at 20 years. Prince, 30, could have faced life in prison for the assault charge alone.

The letter is the first time Prince has commented to anyone other than her attorneys, close family and friends on the charges she faced, her relationship with the oldest of her three daughters or the life the family led inside an apartment at Theron B. Watkins Homes. The mother has been behind bars since June 22, 2012, the day a state social worker and police officer found the emaciated 10-year-old — weighing 32 pounds — amid her waste.

The girl told authorities her mom would often lock her in the closet for days at a time and she would be forced to eat, sleep and sometimes urinate or defecate inside. LP said she didn’t have birthday parties like her sisters and wasn’t allowed to go to school or play outside. She wasn’t always allowed to eat with the family. She said her mom often fed her behind the couch, where a bowl was found.

LP’s rescue shocked the community and prompted hundreds of people to send letters and cards, donations and toys. It spurred others to demand change in a state system that first tried to help LP in 2006, only to send her back to her mother a year later with no safety net in place. Soon after, she vanished from her kindergarten class and didn’t return to school for five years.

Prince’s public defender, Curtis Winegarner, has declined to comment, saying he does not try cases in the media.

He did so again when contacted about Prince’s letter to the newspaper. In her letter, Prince sharply criticized her defense, saying Winegarner “is not doing everything he can for me.”

“Due to my ethical obligation as her attorney, I must keep all matters related to her case confidential,” Winegarner told The Star, “and I can’t publicly comment on that except in court.”

Early signs indicated that Prince may not have been fully on board with — or was confused by — the plea agreement.

When LP’s mother first stood shackled in front of Torrence at last month’s hearing, the judge asked whether she wanted to plead guilty. She shook her head and said no.

“Apparently, we don’t have a meeting of the minds,” Torrence said before calling a brief recess so Prince could speak with Winegarner. When they returned, the judge again asked Prince whether she wanted him to accept her guilty pleas.

This time, she said yes. But now she says that’s not what she wanted to say.

At the hearing, Torrence asked her whether someone had threatened or coerced her into making that plea.

“I told him no I wanted to tell him yes,” she wrote to the newspaper. “But the person that was threatening was the person standing next to me. And that person was my own public defender Mr. Curtis Winegarner.”

Yet when Torrence asked her at the hearing whether her attorney had done a good job representing her, she said yes.

Later that day, Prince apparently watched the TV coverage from jail.

“They reported on the news that I admitted to the crime which I did not,” she wrote. “They did that because they knew they didn’t have any evidence. They thought I was slow or something. They wanted me to take that deal so it would look like I had admitted to the crime. They are not right.”

Prince denied punching her daughter, starving her or intentionally hurting her. She denied that LP was forced to urinate and defecate in the closet and said she tried to feed her daughter but the girl couldn’t eat a lot at one time.

Now some worry that Prince’s letter could derail the plea agreement and prolong the case.

The prosecutor’s office declined to comment when asked about Prince’s letter and whether it could have an impact on the plea deal.

As for Prince, she wants those involved in her case to listen to her.

“I really don’t have to many people fighting for me on the outside,” she wrote. “So I will do my best to do what I can from the inside.”

Prince also wrote that she had sent an 18-page letter to the court last fall detailing some of her concerns, including how Winegarner wasn’t doing all he could for her. Her case file does not include that letter, and court officials wouldn’t say whether a letter was received.

The letter Prince wrote to The Star, pleading her case against the system, raises many questions, said Sean O’Brien, a veteran defense attorney and University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor.

Among them: What was her mental state and did she understand the seriousness of what prosecutors say she did to her daughter?

“Reading this letter, I feel sorry for her,” said O’Brien, who reviewed the letter for the newspaper. “And there’s not much question in my mind that this is a very impaired woman mentally.”

Initially, Prince complains how attorneys didn’t bring her any street clothes to wear to the January hearing and how at one point, when she didn’t want to take the plea, she said her public defender appeared to be “in ambush waiting to attack.”

She then goes on to say LP was responsible for some of her problems and questions why no one has “asked what my child had done and how come they or somebody can’t or has not asked my child what did she do that caused her sickness.”

Toward the end of the letter, Prince talks about her “adorable girls,” quotes from the Bible and thanks neighbors, family members, rapper Tech N9ne, singer-songwriter Alicia Keys and actor Tyler Perry and his character Madea.

Her words were more disjointed and made less sense as the letter went on, O’Brien said.

Winegarner told the judge last month that he and Prince had discussed using mental illness as a defense but decided that her condition did not rise to that level. He added, however, that it still could be a factor at her sentencing.

In her letter, Prince brought up a time when she and Winegarner spoke about her daughter’s failing heart. After the girl was rescued, her health deteriorated and she was in need of a transplant — which she eventually received last spring.

Prince wrote that she “asked Mr. Curt if my heart matches hers could she have mine?”

“He gave me a look as if I was crazy. He said he would look into it but I probably would need to get (evaluated) to see if I’m in the right state of mind.”

O’Brien hopes that happens now, if it hasn’t already.

“There should be a detailed inquiry, and I think the public defender should be involved,” O’Brien said. “I hope the prosecutors understand that there are issues here and maybe they should put this case on hold while they look at these issues. A letter like this is the type of thing that should say, ‘Let’s take another look.’ ”

In other parts of her letter, Prince describes a home situation that was often unmanageable for a single mom. She said she was under constant stress, with no one to talk to.

“I was alone and struggling, trying to keep myself, my children and everything else together, but I felt like I couldn’t any more. I was giving up,” she wrote. “I didn’t know what else to do. My girls were all I had and I live for them every day.”

Prince’s former boyfriend Marcus Benson pleaded guilty to child endangerment shortly after authorities found LP. Benson, who is the father of Prince’s two younger children, not LP, initially was sentenced to five years of probation.

As part of his plea agreement, Benson said he would serve a seven-year prison sentence if he violated the terms of his probation, which prohibited him from having contact with children younger than 17. Last fall, his probation was revoked after he allegedly spent time with a friend’s children, and he was sent to prison.

When Prince wrote lovingly about her children, she would say “my daughters” or “my girls.” But when she described struggles or problems, they were directly about LP.

“ If we went over to somebodies house or just somewhere out in public she would clown,” Prince wrote about an earlier time several years ago. “She had her clown suit on everyday when she was going to school. This was a tough situation. I was going up to her school just about every day.”

She doesn’t say anything about taking LP out of school in kindergarten, keeping her home for the next five years and not allowing her outside to play like her sisters, as the girl told authorities. Prince also said LP was smart and had plenty of educational toys and picture and coloring books.

“LP was doing just fine at home the whole 5 or really 4 yrs. that LP was at home with me. She didn’t die or need a heart but when she went to the hospital all of a sudden she does. Not saying that there wasn’t anything wrong with LP’s heart. But they are trying to put the blame on me. No, No, No!”

Prince said she loves her girls and misses them every day.

“Not a moment that goes by that I don’t think about them and all the good times we had. I wish I could hug and kiss them. See them, write and talk to them and tell them I love them, I will be there to get them in a minute.

“I never meant for any of this to happen.”

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