SEATTLE — Christina Carlson was told Monday that a rotten childhood was no excuse for leaving her two young daughters without food or water inside a car so full of human feces and urine that the odor could be detected 30 feet away.
“She held her daughters restrained or captive in no way a human or animal should be kept,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tate London said. “The girls’ suffering was unimaginable.”
Chantel Craig, 1 1/2, and her sister, 3, were covered in painful sores caused by sitting for days in soiled diapers. There were lice in their hair and their diapers and blankets were infested with maggots and bed bugs. They were malnourished and dehydrated. The girls were kept strapped in their car seats for long stretches, only being allowed out for about an hour a day.
Carlson, a heroin addict, and her daughters were living for weeks in an inoperable car down a gravel road on the Tulalip Indian Reservation.
Chantel died from neglect on Oct. 8, 2012. Her sister barely survived, likely only saved because a neighbor urged Carlson to return to the car that day.
On Monday, Carlson was sentenced to 15 years in prison for Chantel’s murder and the mistreatment of her other daughter.
U.S. District Court Judge James Robart called it one of the worst crimes he has seen, characterizing the murder and mistreatment as “nauseating.”
Carlson, 38, showed little emotion on Monday. Her attorney explained that the Tulalip woman had suffered a panic attack before the judge took the bench and was “having a hard time.”
“I’d like to say I’m sorry to my family,” Carlson said. “I know I did wrong. I made poor choices and I’m dealing with that every day.”
Carlson’s mother and uncle sat in the front row of the courtroom.
She faced up to 30 years in prison after pleading guilty in April to second-degree murder and first-degree criminal mistreatment. No one on Monday advocated for a maximum prison sentence. Instead, Carlson’s background, including the abuse and neglect she suffered as a child that left her with cognitive impairments, were raised as reasons to show her leniency.
No one, however, disputed the heart-wrenching nature of the crimes against two young girls.
Carlson was indifferent to her children’s’ suffering, the federal prosecutor said. Her priority that day was trying to score methadone to ease her heroin withdrawal symptoms. She chose her own needs over those of her children, London said.
It is hard to fathom how a mother could subject her children to such horrific conditions, he said. Her conduct was even more egregious because there was help for Carlson and she was actively avoiding intervention.
“Life-saving help was only a phone call away,” London said.
The Tulalip Tribes through its child welfare services program, beda?chelh, had been looking for Carlson and her daughters for months, the judge was told. State social workers also had an active investigation into the family until just hours before Chantel died.
Carlson’s mother had called Child Protective Services in December 2011 with concerns that Carlson was neglecting her children.
Tribal and state social workers had difficulties finding Carlson but eventually visited the children. The social workers didn’t see any evidence then that the girls were in imminent danger, which would have been necessary to remove them. There also were no signs of abuse or neglect. The social workers agreed to continue to try to assist the family.
About two weeks after the first visit, the tribal social worker learned that the parents weren’t seeking help for their alcohol and drug abuse problems, as they claimed they were.
Relatives told social workers that Carlson was hiding out.
“The tribe’s intervention would have, most likely, saved (Chantel’s) life. Unfortunately, the defendant knew that beda?chelh was looking for her and her daughters, and would provide for their care, but she actively avoided contact with tribal authorities,” London wrote.
Her four older children already had been removed from her care and she was aware that the Tribes provided a “safety net” for families who needed assistance, he said.
“She knew where to turn for help,” London said.
Her client did need services, federal public defender Paula Deutsch said.
“She wasn’t able to do it on her own,” Deutsch said.
Her client did better when she had support from relatives or friends. A friend had been living with the mother and children in the car but left about four days before Chantel died.
Carlson “really fell apart,” after he left, Deutsch said.
The defense attorney urged the judge to sentence Carlson to eight years in federal prison. She said that she, too, had a “visceral reaction” to the details of the case.
“It took a long time understand what happened here,” Deutsch said.
She and her investigators spoke with Carlson’s relatives and reviewed medical records and also records from the state Department of Social and Health Services. The defense also hired a neuropsychologist and an expert on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder.
The interviews and records painted a picture of a woman who had suffered from abuse and neglect, beginning when she was a child.
Deutsch said they learned that Carlson’s mother drank alcohol while pregnant with her daughter. The exposure likely caused cognitive impairment that resulted in Carlson lacking judgement and impulse control, according to experts.
Carlson likely couldn’t accurately predict the consequences of neglect, Deutsch said. Additionally because she was neglected as a child she may have viewed that as “normal parenting,” the public defender said.
Carlson’s drug use exacerbated her existing mental impairments, she said.
The lawyers and Robart appeared to rely on two mental health evaluations to determine if there were mitigating circumstances in considering a just and sufficient sentence. Those evaluations were kept private, under seal in the court file.
“She had a rotten childhood caused by the conduct of her parents and family,” Robart said.
She suffers from some mental and physical conditions but “they do not offer an excuse for the conduct here. They are mitigating factors,” the judge said.
Robart said he was struck by how much attention the lawyers had given Carlson’s difficulties in life. Little had been said about her daughters.
“The victims are two small girls,” the judge said.
Robart pointed out that in her plea agreement the defendant acknowledged that she killed her daughter with malice aforethought and acted with extreme disregard for human life.
The notion that Carlson was not as aware as she could have been about the welfare of her children “does not resonate with this court,” Robart said.
“She had other children taken away from her. She knew she needed to care for her children and she made a decision not to.”
The defendant also was aware that tribal welfare workers were looking for her and her daughters.
“She actively sought to avoid contact,” he said.
It is apparent that there is a cycle of alcohol and substance abuse and neglect, the judge said. “That cycle has been lived out by this defendant. That is not acceptable and that cycle must be broken.”