Sentence too light in infant drowning trial, lawmakers say
JANESVILLE Gov. Scott Walker and Republican lawmakers want two state agencies to explain why they recommended probation for an East Troy woman whose neglect led to the death of her 11-month-old twins.
The legislators, led by Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, want the heads of the Department of Corrections and the Department of Children and Families to explain why a recommendation of probation over prison was made in the case of 27-year-old Melody Butt, who was sentenced Tuesday to a year in jail with child-care and work-release privileges. She also was placed on 14 years of probation.
Butt pleaded guilty to the felony charge. She fell asleep in an adjoining bedroom after leaving her twins in a bathtub with the water running. An autopsy determined the twins drowned.
“The sentence was inappropriate,” Kedzie said. “How is it that the state did not recommend a prison sentence for a woman whose negligence resulted in the death of two children?”
Kedzie said he and other legislators are requesting answers not only because Butt received “a light sentence” but because of concerns about the safety of her three remaining children.
“The recommendation of a prison sentence by the district attorney was opposed by the state agencies,” Kedzie said. “It just looks like something
didn’t work right here.”
Butt pleaded guilty to a felony charge of neglecting a child resulting in death and a misdemeanor charge of neglecting a child. She faced a sentence of up to 25 years in prison.
“We want to know how the state came to the conclusion that probation was an appropriate sentence, what the Legislature can do to correct this and to what degree can the state act to protect the remaining children,” Kedzie said.
As a condition of her probation, Butt is allowed to be with her children only with supervision. That could change during the 14-year probationary period depending on recommendations from her probation officer and Walworth County officials.
A pre-sentence investigation and report indicated a recommendation of probation by the Department of Corrections. The Walworth County Department of Health and Human Services concurred with that recommendation.
In their letter to the state agencies, the lawmakers questioned the sentence.
“Earlier this week, a sentence was handed down by Walworth County Circuit Court Judge David Reddy which we believe falls far short of a suitable response to such a heinous act,” the legislators said in their letter to Gary Hamblin and Eloise Anderson, who head up the Department of Corrections and the Department of Children and Families respectively. “We are calling on your respective offices to utilize your available and allowable jurisdiction and resources to review this matter and hopefully provide us information as to how and why the system failed these innocent children.”
Walker cautioned the lawmakers regarding the state’s power to intervene in the case on behalf of Butt’s children.
“While the state can provide limited assistance to county child protective services in some situations, the court system ultimately determines child placement,” Walker said. “Once a court has made a ruling, a state agency cannot override a court sentencing or child placement decision. Any change to a court-ordered child placement decision requires subsequent court action.”
Walker said in his letter to the lawmakers that he has ordered the departments to review their actions “that led up to your concerns at both the state and county level.” He said the agencies would follow up with the legislators “directly.”
Joining Kedzie in calling for a state review were Sen. Mary Lazich of New Berlin and Reps. Tyler August of Lake Geneva, Evan Wynn of Whitewater, Stephen Nass of La Grange, Amy Loudenbeck of Clinton and David Craig of Big Bend, all Republicans.
Kedzie said he was moved to intervene because of his concern for Butt’s children.
“If anything happened to the three remaining children, this will would turn out to be an even greater tragedy,” he said. “How could we live with that if we didn’t act? I am taking an active role to help these children.
“I view this as a role for government to work for children who don’t yet have a voice in the system.”