A judge Monday sentenced two therapists to 16 years in prison in the death of a 10-year-old girl who begged for air and screamed for mercy after she was bound head-to-toe in a flannel sheet during a discredited psychotherapy procedure called "rebirthing."
Connell Watkins, 54, and assistant Julie Ponder, 40, both sobbed during their separate hearings before Jefferson County Judge Jane Tidball as she pronounced their sentences.
"I hope this sends a very clear message to those who treat children that they are not allowed to abuse them," prosecutor Steve Jensen said.
Watkins and Ponder were found guilty April 20 of reckless child abuse resulting in death, which carries a minimum term of 16 years.
Candace Newmaker, who had been in foster homes, was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, meaning she could not bond with her adoptive mother. In the "rebirthing" session, she was told to fight her way out of the sheet so she could be "reborn" to her new mother.
During the trial, jurors viewed a chilling 70-minute videotape of the April 2000 therapy session in which the girl begged for air and screamed that she was dying, only to have her pleas met with sarcasm from the therapists.
The girl, who lived with her adoptive mother, Jeane Newmaker, in North Carolina, lost consciousness during the session and died the next day in a Denver hospital.
"The crime itself was horrifying. However, there was no evidence at the trial that the defendant wanted to harm Candace Newmaker," the judge said.
The two women, who operated out of Watkins' home in Evergreen, Colo., could have received as much as 48 years in prison, a term the prosecution sought. Jensen said the two therapists would probably serve a little more than one-third of their sentences.
The defense argued that the death was a tragic accident and that the therapists believed the girl was being manipulative when she said she could not breathe. Watkins' attorney, Craig Truman, said his client will appeal her conviction and sentence. Ponder's attorney did not speak to reporters.
Jeane Newmaker, who testified that the child was difficult to handle and had started a fire in the home, said she turned to Watkins as a last resort.
In a brief statement before the sentence was announced, Watkins said: "I feel sorrow, regret and remorse that torments me every waking hour. I failed Candace and I failed her mother. I accept full responsibility. I'm ready to accept what you require of me."
Ponder cried throughout her statement to the court. "My intention was to help Candace, not to hurt her," she said.
Jeane Newmaker, who was present during the session, and two other assistants who aided Watkins are set to go on trial later this year.