KANSAS CITY, Mo. » After less than three hours of deliberations, jurors found Jacole Prince guilty Friday of endangering, abusing and assaulting the 10-year-old daughter she repeatedly kept locked in a closet of their Kansas City apartment.
Later, jurors recommended she spend up to 34 years in prison.
After the verdicts against her were read, Prince clutched a tissue but remained stoic. During the penalty phase that followed, however, she became agitated during the statements from her daughter’s foster mother.
At one point, she stood from her chair, muttering, “I don’t care. I don’t care.” After another exchange she went to leave the courtroom, and sheriff deputies accompanied her away.
Before the foster mother’s statements in the penalty phase, Price’s daughter, known as LP, also spoke. The now 14-year-old had testified earlier in the week in the guilt phase of the trial, and on Friday directed her remarks to Prince, seated at a nearby courtroom table.
“I’m glad that you have gone away for the rest of my life,” LP said.
“I did not like how you treated me as a kid, how you hit me, whooped me, and did not feed me day and night. Now you can’t hurt me anymore because you are in jail.” She later added “Don’t worry about me, I’m in a better place and a better home.”
LP ended her remarks identifying herself by saying her name and adding “Jacole’s used-to-be daughter.”
LP’s foster mother, known as JS, spoke next.
She complimented LP for her “excellent recall of the horrible events that happened to her.” She thanked “the public that showed so much love and concern” and sent birthday gifts to LP. She also thanked “the anonymous person who called, wherever you are, who tipped the authorities to a third child in the home.”
She recalled taking LP into her home following her rescue from the closet, “a 10-year-old child trapped in the body of a 3- to 4-year-old” and who was “afraid to sleep without her flashlight because she had been kept in the dark for so long.”
Although Prince remained largely impassive through LP’s remarks, she began to stir during the statement from JS, shaking her head slightly in disagreement and then apparently speaking back to JS.
This continued during a conference of the lawyers and judge, prompting Jackson County Circuit Court Judge J. Dale Youngs to briefly admonish Prince.
She continued to speak out, and when defense attorney Caitlin Stephenson approached Prince, asking if she needed to leave, Prince left her chair.
“I don’t care, I don’t care,” she said.
Youngs again asked her to quiet down, saying “Ms. Prince, please stop speaking.” Prince replied, “I don’t have to stop speaking” as she continued to leave the courtroom, accompanied by sheriff’s deputies.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker asked jurors to recommend a 30-year sentence on the first-degree assault conviction and seven years each on the child abuse and child endangerment convictions.
Defense attorney Curtis Winegarner asked for no more than 10 years on the assault conviction; the maximum for the other two charges — child endangerment and child abuse — is seven years.
Late Friday, jurors recommended that Jacole be sentenced to 20 years on the assault conviction and seven years each on the abuse and endangerment charges. Youngs said he would set a formal sentencing date soon. Prince was not present for the jury’s recommendations; Youngs said that after being taken back to her holding cell that she had indicated she wanted to leave the courthouse, and was taken back to the detention center.
Winegarner declined to comment on the jury’s verdicts. Peters Baker thanked the anonymous individual who years ago called a hotline and alerted police authorities to LP’s predicament.
“I think it’s fair to say that that caller saved that girl’s life,” Peters Baker said.
In the guilt phase of the trial, the defense team argued that Prince, 32, had a personality disorder and other mental health issues that affected her ability to parent and made her believe she was protecting her daughter by keeping her in the closet.
“No mother in her right mind would do that,” Winegarner said in his closing statement Friday. “You either have to think that Jacole Prince is a monster or you have to think she is a person with mental illness who is overwhelmed.”
But prosecutors argued that Prince knew that her treatment of her oldest daughter was wrong.
“Most people treat their dog and cat better than LP was treated,” Assistant Jackson County Prosecutor Trisha Lacey said in her closing statement, during which she asked jurors to hold Prince responsible for her actions.
Prosecutors charged Prince with child endangerment, first-degree assault and child abuse for allegedly repeatedly locking the girl in a closet, seldom feeding her, keeping her out of school and neglecting to see that she got adequate medical care.
Police and a child welfare worker rescued LP from the barricaded closet in June 2012. At the time, she weighed 32 pounds and wore a toddler-size shirt. A girl her age should have weighed nearly twice that, according to testimony presented earlier this week.
LP underwent a heart transplant in 2013, but the prosecution and defense disagreed on whether malnutrition contributed to her heart condition. A prosecution witness said she believed the malnutrition degraded LP’s heart muscles. A defense witness said that LP’s heart disease could have had “a vast number of causes.”
“We don’t dispute that LP suffered serious injuries,” Winegarner said Friday. “We never said at any time that we were trying to avoid accountability. We don’t deny that this child suffered severe malnutrition.”
But because Prince suffered from mental illness, she did not act knowingly, he said.
“She is not in her right mind,” Winegarner said. “You cannot judge her by the standards of a normal person, because she is not.”
He asked jurors to not let their emotions guide them during their deliberations.
“I’m asking you to focus on the truth, on all that we really know,” he said.
It remains difficult to know specific details, such as exactly when Prince started putting LP in the closet, or exactly how long she stayed there, he said.
Winegarner stressed defense testimony about Prince’s mental illnesses, including depression, that perhaps had roots in what Winegarner described as a “strained and abusive relationship with her own mother.” Her troubled teen life had a profound influence on her when she became a mother at age 17, he said.
Prince’s mental illness sometimes manifested itself in “cognitive dysfunction and delusional ideas,” Winegarner said, citing as an example how Prince believed that LP’s occasional instances of urinating or defecating on herself were acts of defiance.
Withholding food was one way that Prince believed she could address that, Winegarner said, just as locking LP in a closet was Prince’s way of keeping the child from getting into hazardous household chemicals.
During the prosecution’s closing statement, Lacey told jurors that Prince had treated LP so poorly in part because Prince resented how much her mother — LP’s grandmother — loved her, and because LP reminded Prince of LP’s father. Prince resented that LP didn’t obey her, and sometimes urinated or defecated in her pants out of defiance.
LP did many things that made Prince angry, Lacey said, adding, “She took her anger out on this child.”
The defense team’s explanation for Prince’s behavior — that she has mental illnesses — didn’t stop Prince from making sure her two younger daughters were always well dressed, with their hair braided, Lacey said. It didn’t stop Prince from making sure that LP’s sister got on her school bus every morning. It didn’t stop Prince from socializing with her neighbors, Lacey said.
Lacey reminded jurors that Prince told a Kansas City police detective: “I know what I did was wrong.”
“What she told a detective tells us that she acted knowingly,” Lacey said.
Lacey discounted the defense argument that Prince’s difficult life as a teenager should be taken into account.
“Let’s face facts,” Lacey said. “Plenty of people have had lives that were not so good. They didn’t lock a child in a closet and starve her.”