Katrina Mitchell, 31, of Frankfort spoke quietly in Belfast District Court as Justice Robert Murray made sure she understood her rights. Until Friday, she had pleaded not guilty to the charge and was scheduled to have a jury trial in early January.
When asked why she decided to change her plea, her reply was nearly inaudible. “I just don’t want to put my family through any more scrutiny,” she told the judge.
According to Waldo County Deputy District Attorney Eric Walker, the plea deal struck between the parties calls for a sentence of one year in jail with all but three months suspended as well as a year of probation. Walker also recommended psychological counseling, no use or possession of alcohol or illegal drugs, and submission to random searching and testing of her residence, vehicles and person. Mitchell also will have to submit to substance abuse counseling to the satisfaction of her probation officer, Walker said.
Mitchell had been home alone with her 7-month-old infant, Annabelle, and her nearly 3-year-old son, Jett, on April 12, 2011, when she passed out drunk on the couch, according to a police affidavit filed three months later in support of her arrest for child endangerment.
Tests done after the baby was killed showed that Mitchell’s blood alcohol level was about .30 percent, almost four times the legal driving limit in Maine. She also tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. At the time of the mauling, she had an agreement with her husband not to drink alcohol unless he was present.
She told police that she had only consumed a 40-ounce beer that day and did not pass out, but was exhausted and had taken a nap with her baby on the other end of the couch.
A couple hours later, she woke up and found Annabelle lying dead on the floor with claw marks on her body, according to the police affidavit. She called 911 and her husband, Johnny Mitchell, who was at work.
Mitchell’s defense attorney, Aaron Fethke of Searsport, had written in documents submitted to the court that his client had started drinking more heavily after waking up to find her child dead.
“The state feels that Ms. Mitchell was drinking before this incident,” Walker said Tuesday.
When the police arrived, they found that the baby was stiff and purple, with scratch marks on her body. According to the autopsy report, Annabelle suffered from extensive clawing injuries and associated blood loss. However, Walker told the judge during the brief hearing Tuesday morning that the baby did not die from this.
“The ultimate cause of death was suffocation,” the deputy district attorney said.
According to the police affidavit, the dog’s mauling of the baby while in the same room as Katrina Mitchell likely lasted a while.
“The number of claw marks on Annabelle Mitchell’s body were extensive, and could not be the result of one or two brief contacts between the dog and Annabelle,” Maine State Police Detective Adam Kelley wrote after speaking with the deputy chief medical examiner.
“Many of the claw marks were associated with hemorrhage, which is indicative of Annabelle being alive for at least part of the mauling, and she would have been capable of crying and-or screaming due to pain.”
The Rottweiler, Hannibal, was less than a year old and Johnny Mitchell told police the night of Annabelle’s death that the dog was friendly by nature and not vicious, according to the police affidavit filed by Detective Adam Kelley of the Maine State Police.
“There had not been a problem with the dog around their two children before,” the father told the detective.
Johnny Mitchell requested that police kill the dog, which they did that night.
Efforts made last week and Tuesday to contact the Maine attorney general’s office to learn why the state charged Katrina Mitchell with child endangerment were unsuccessful.
Waldo County District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau said in 2011 that endangering a child is defined as a reckless act which violates a duty of care or protection.
“There’s lots of things parents can do to end up in bad situations without the slightest guilt attached to it. I think that when the evidence comes out, it’ll be clear … that this was criminal conduct,” he said then.
Since her arrest, she has been free on $1,000 cash bail, with conditions that include not being allowed to use any alcoholic beverages or drugs, submitting to random searches and the creation of a safety plan with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
“Ms. Mitchell by all accounts has done really well since the death occurred,” Walker said.
He said that the sentencing agreement worked out by both parties would allow her to serve a “significant” time in jail but give her a chance to continue to do well.
Note the word "significant"
Mitchell’s sentencing hearing is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Feb. 7 at Waldo County Superior Court in Belfast.