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Judge goes outside the norm in sentencing of mother for the death of her child while sleeping

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 6/22/18

Sentencing guidelines called for Arissa Ward of Middletown to get from 3 months to a year in Dauphin County Prison after she pleaded no contest to charges involving the death of her infant son on …

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Judge goes outside the norm in sentencing of mother for the death of her child while sleeping

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Sentencing guidelines called for Arissa Ward of Middletown to get from 3 months to a year in Dauphin County Prison after she pleaded no contest to charges involving the death of her infant son on Dec. 30, 2016.

However, county Judge William Tully on Wednesday took what he called the “very rare” step of deviating from those guidelines, instead sentencing Ward to a four-year alternative to incarceration known as intermediate punishment — although Ward will have to spend the first 48 hours in the county prison.

“This is so unfortunate on many different categories,” Tully said. “I don’t see the purpose of punishing for the sake of punishing.”

According to arrest papers filed by Middletown police, Ward had been drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana before she lay down on the couch with her son at their residence in the 300 block of Lawrence Street on Dec. 30.

Ward told police that she thought she had rolled over on the boy, who was 2 months and 5 days old at the time.

Police arrested Ward after autopsy results determined that the boy’s death was caused by complications of traumatic asphyxia combined with smothering.

Toxicology results showed that the boy had the active ingredient of marijuana in his system at the time of his death, from Ward having breastfed the boy.

Ward, 24, on April 2 pleaded no contest before Tully to misdemeanor charges of involuntary manslaughter and endangering the welfare of children.

Ward’s defense attorney, Casey Shore, said that no sentence from the court could inflict greater punishment upon Ward than the punishment she has inflicted upon herself.

“She’s in a mental jail that will not end,” Shore said. “There is no expiration to that sentence.”

In deciding for probation and against Ward spending months behind bars, what weighed heavily upon Tully — and upon prosecutor Jennifer Gettle — was that Ward get her life back together to be the mother of her older child, her daughter.

“There comes a time when you realize that you have a daughter that still needs you,” Tully told Ward. “Your daughter doesn’t need a semi-mom. She needs a whole mom.”

But Tully was clearly perplexed over recent drug test results indicating Ward’s continued use of marijuana, even after she had pleaded no contest to the charges.

Gettle said it was “hard for me to wrap my head around” Ward going back to using marijuana after the accidental death of her son.

“I believe absolutely that she is sincerely remorseful. I think she will struggle with this for the rest of her life. But she needs to get away from the pot,” Gettle said.

“Arissa has been through a lot,” Shore told the judge. “She’s a 24-year-old mother of two. One of those children has passed away. She’s lost her father, she’s lost basically a grandmother figure who was incredibly important to her with whom she lived for a period of time. She’s lost her career, judge. At 24 years of age, she thought she had it mapped out how she was going to be able to care for these children. That’s gone. She’s now at the point in time where the only thing she hasn’t lost is the memories of that night. The only thing that can potentially dull those horrible memories are the memories that she can create with her daughter.”

Of Ward’s continued use of marijuana, Shore added: “I don’t agree with it, I know the court doesn’t. But I think she gets on an island in her own mind and whether it is a self-destructive attitude or whether it’s an ‘I don’t care’ attitude, I think it overtakes all of her thought processes.”

Standing next to Gettle during the nearly one-hour sentencing was Middletown Police Detective Gary Rux, who led the investigation that resulted in Ward’s arrest on May 25, 2017.

Asked at one point by the judge if he had anything to say, Rux expressed concern that Ward’s continued marijuana use could lead to “the same thing again” occurring if Ward has another child in the future.

Tully noted that the court had received letters from more than 20 people, attesting to the positive traits of Ward’s character.

Two of those people read their letters in court, before Ward presented her own statement that lasted close to 15 minutes.

She spoke of the anguish of knowing she will never hear her infant son say the word “mommy,” will never be able to take pictures of her son and his older sister, or someday help her son “pick out a ring for that special girl.”

“I want you to know and I pray every day that you know that I am sorry,” she told the court. “I’m sorry I failed as your mother and your caregiver, but I’ll never be sorry for bringing you here and for the time that we had together, no matter how short it was. For as long as I live I will always love you.”

While Ward won’t spend months in jail, Tully made a point of ordering that her sentence begin with her spending two days behind bars in the county prison.

“It’s important that you see what you are going to avoid going forward,” the judge told Ward. “Two days will give you an appreciation of what it is to lose your liberties” if Ward again fails a drug test while on probation.

After 48 hours in county prison, Ward then will spend three months on house arrest with electronic monitoring, and spend the rest of the four years on probation.

Tully ordered Ward to pay $250 in fines and costs, and perform 40 hours of community service.

As Ward is a certified nursing aide who aspired to become a nurse, Tully suggested Ward perform her community service as a volunteer at the children’s hospital at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

At Gettle’s suggestion, Tully added the condition that Ward not consume alcohol during her time on probation.

He also prohibited Ward from using any illegal drugs during the sentence — specifically limiting her use of drugs to those that are prescribed by a physician.

Tully also sentenced Ward to five years of probation on the count of endangering the welfare of children. However, the five years are to be served concurrent with the four-year probation sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

“If you do everything that is expected, count two (the five years of probation) becomes irrelevant,” Tully told Ward. “If you don’t, count two becomes a potential nightmare going forward.”

Ward’s arrest in May 2017 prompted then-county District Attorney Ed Marsico to use the case to increase public awareness of the dangers of parents and other adults “co-sleeping” with their infant children.

The county formed a task force to investigate what Marsico at the time of Ward’s arrest said was a rising number of incidents in the county of children being killed as a result of co-sleeping.

The task force presented its findings to Dauphin County Commissioners in November 2017. More information about the initiative can be found on the Dauphin County website.