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Mom sentenced for assaulting toddler on Hawaii flight

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    Samantha Leialoha Watanabe stands outside federal court before her sentencing in Honolulu today.

A federal judge sentenced a Hawaii mother to a month in jail and three months under home confinement for assaulting her 15-month-old daughter on a flight from Alaska.

Samantha Leialoha Watanabe declined to speak at her sentencing hearing today.

A jury convicted her of assault after last year’s trial where prosecutors alleged she cursed at her daughter, smacked her in the head, hit her in the face with a stuffed doll and yanked out tufts of her hair during the May 2015 Alaska Airlines flight.

Defense attorneys argued the allegations were fabricated by judgmental passengers who didn’t like how Watanabe looked and dressed her child. Watanabe didn’t do anything beyond permissible parental discipline during a long flight with a fussy toddler, her attorneys said. Prosecutors alleged she was unreasonably rough with the generally well-behaved girl.

In arguing for no jail time, public defender Alexander Silvert told the judge Watanabe is breastfeeding a baby she gave birth to prematurely last month. It’s her seventh child. She agreed to let the boy’s father have custody, but she sees the infant frequently enough for nursing, Silvert explained.

She no longer has custody of her six other children, including the girl she was traveling with when she was arrested.

Watanabe has led a hard life of drugs and homelessness, Silvert said. But since her arrest, she has made improvements to her life — from anger management to mental health and drug treatment, he said. Silvert asked the judge not to condemn her for that life.

“It was poor parenting skills that got us where we are today,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Wallenstein said in requesting the judge sentence her within a guideline range of four to 10 months. “No one in any socio-economic class is allowed to assault a 15-month-old child.”

In finding her guilty, jurors had to determine that an act of striking, occurred, but it’s not known which one they agreed upon. It could have been a pinch, or a slap or something else, Silvert said: “We have no idea what the jury convicted her of.”

Since her arrest, “you’ve done much better” in a clean and sober house, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kevin Chang told Watanabe. He noted that her drug tests — and tests on the baby at birth — have been negative.

“I cannot say you’ve completely turned your life around,” Chang told her, but he said she has made significant progress.

A sentence that doesn’t include incarceration would minimize the seriousness of the crime, Chang said. The judge advised her to use the 30 days at the Honolulu Federal Detention Center for reflection.

She has until May 10 to surrender to authorities to begin her sentence.

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