Standing shackled before a Jackson County judge, the Kansas City woman whose emaciated daughter was rescued from a locked closet in 2012 kept most of her answers Tuesday morning to a short “yes” or “no.”
By LAURA BAUER and JUDY L. THOMAS
The Kansas City Star
No, Jacole Prince doesn’t think she has a mental illness. Yes, she is guilty of failing to get medical treatment for her 10-year-old daughter, who weighed just 32 pounds when authorities found her 18 months ago.
What was supposed to be a hearing to set Prince’s trial date instead became a venue for her pleas of guilt.
She conceded that prosecutors had enough evidence for a jury to convict her of first-degree assault and child abuse, so with her public defender at her side, Prince entered pleas known as Alford pleas on those counts. As for the third felony charge — endangering the welfare of a child — she pleaded guilty.
“Do you want me to accept your guilty pleas?” Judge John Torrence asked Prince, 30.
“Yes,” she said softly.
Though she addressed many questions, Prince did not elaborate or try to explain what had happened to her daughter, known only as LP, in the years before the girl was pulled from the closet. Some of that could come at Prince’s sentencing, which is scheduled for April 25.
Public defender Curtis Winegarner told the judge that he and Prince had discussed using mental illness as a defense but decided that her condition did not rise to that level.
“However, that does not mean that mental illness will not be a factor at the sentencing,” he said.
LP was rescued June 22, 2012, when a social worker and a police officer responding to a state hotline call discovered the girl in the closet. Her story shocked the community and prompted a battle over the release of records after child tragedies.
The Missouri Department of Social Services finally released her file to The Star nearly a year after LP was found. The documents revealed that the girl was first removed from her mother’s care in February 2006 after Prince told medical personnel that she withheld food and water from her daughter to keep her from going to the bathroom so often.
In March 2007, family court officially reunited LP with her mother.
The records show she soon vanished from sight. She stopped attending kindergarten in April 2007, and there was no indication that anyone ever reported her absence to the state.
Documents also indicate that Prince never received a psychological evaluation after LP was removed from her home in 2006.
Prince’s pleas didn’t come easily Tuesday morning. Initially, after a short consultation with Winegarner, she appeared unsure whether she wanted to make the three guilty pleas.
“Miss Prince, is that what you want to do this morning?” the judge asked.
Prince thought for a moment and then shook her head. “No.”
Torrence called for a brief recess so Winegarner could speak with Prince.
When they returned about 15 minutes later, Prince was ready to proceed.
Assistant prosecutor Trisha Lacey spelled out the plea agreement and laid out some of the evidence the state would have presented at Prince’s trial.
When authorities found LP, the girl told them that her mother sometimes locked her in the closet and forced her to sleep there, Lacey said. She was not allowed outside.
At the hospital, Lacey said, LP was diagnosed with severe chronic malnutrition.
“Medical personnel will testify that although she weighed approximately 32 pounds, 7 ounces when she was brought in on June 22, 21 days later when she was weighed, she had gained weight so that she now weighed 47 pounds, 3 ounces,” Lacey said.
Though no one described how the girl is doing today — and state officials will provide no updated information — prosecutors gave extensive details about LP’s condition and prognosis when she first was found.
LP suffered from anemia and vitamin and mineral deficiencies, Lacey said, and the girl had developmental delays because of isolation, malnutrition and a lack of stimulation.
“In addition, it was subsequently determined that she had suffered heart damage,” Lacey said. “Her heart was in heart failure, and this was all a direct result of the severe malnutrition that she had suffered at the hands of the defendant.
“And in the spring of 2013, the victim in this case was required to get a heart transplant…”
That was the first official acknowledgment that LP had to have a new heart. The Star reported on the girl’s transplant in August after listening to dozens of hours of Prince’s jailhouse phone calls.
When Lacey finished, Torrence turned to Prince and asked about her pleas to each charge. Prince could have faced life in prison for the first-degree assault alone, but prosecutors agreed they would seek no more than a 20-year sentence for all the charges.
Prince left the courtroom Tuesday with her head down and did not speak as she was escorted back to jail.