Woman gets two-years in prison for baby’s death

Angela Bernard Show caption
Angela Bernard

A mentally disabled woman pleaded no contest Friday to beating a baby to death last spring, and in exchange was ordered two serve only two years in prison.

Angela Bernard, 40, has an IQ of 56, and reads at a kindergarten level — eight grade levels too low to have understood the constitutional rights she waived when confessing to police that she’d bludgeoned the baby to death, according to previous court testimony.

The woman’s confession was the only evidence connecting her to the crime, District Attorney Chris Bowman said.

“We had to make the best of an extremely horrible situation,” Bowman said. “Unfortunately this is what we were left with.”

Bernard had been charged with second-degree murder, facing an automatic life sentence if convicted.

She pleaded no contest to manslaughter Friday, which accepts punishment without admitting responsibility.

She was alleged to have dropped 3-month-old RyanJae Mitchell into the sink when she wouldn’t stop crying. Then she beat her until her ribs broke, her liver tore and blood pooled beneath her eyes.

The infant died of blunt force trauma to her abdomen and chest.

The next day, Bernard was presented a waiver of her Miranda rights, which acknowledges that she understood police could use her words against her. It is written at an eighth-grade reading level.

She signed it, and confessed to beating the child.

Doctors hired by the defense, then others brought in by the prosecution, agreed that Bernard’s mental incapacities rendered her unable to comprehend her rights.

One doctor testified at a January trial that the federal government had declared Bernard mentally disabled when she was 12 years old. Her IQ of 56 puts her in the range of mild to moderately disabled.

It also made her more gullible and susceptible, her attorneys argued. Police had threatened that she would never again see her own child if she did not confess.

Bernard’s attorney, Daniel Engelberg, asked Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Tracey Flemings-Davillier to forbid prosecutors from using her confession against her at trial. The judge had not yet decided when she reached a plea deal with prosecutors on Friday.

At the hearing Friday, Engelberg said he had a doctor prepared to testify that the child’s injuries could have been caused by CPR she performed when the child stopped breathing. Her confession, he suggested, was provoked by police.

She was sentenced to five years with three suspended. She was ordered to serve two years at Orleans Parish Prison, followed by another five years of probation.

“We felt that this outcome was the best we could obtain under the circumstances,” Bowman said. “If we waited until after the judge had ruled, we wouldn’t have had any case at all.”

He declined to compare Bernard’s case to other, similar ones pending in criminal court.

Chelsea Thornton, for one, is charged with first-degree murder, and facing a possible death sentence for allegedly shooting her 3-year-old son and drowning her 4-year-old daughter in the bathtub.

Thornton had a long and documented history of mental illness, and had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Doctors have testified that she had a severe mood disorder.

But insanity defenses in general are different from Bernard’s issue of mental disability, Bowman said. The latter was a problem of proof: without her confession, prosecutors decided they would be unlikely to persuade a jury to convict her.