Stephanie Devine, 2, was born prematurely at 29 weeks in 2010. She suffered of complications that resulted in a lack of oxygen to the brain and cerebral palsy. She underwent occupational therapy to improve her delayed motor skills and had a daily dose of medication which would help prevent infections. 1
Despite her disability, Stephanie was making progress. She was seeing an occupational therapist, Sharlyn Wenberg, who said that Stephanie was learning to feed herself and was making great progress in her ability to crawl and sit up on her own. The last time Sharlyn saw Stephanie was in June of 2012. Over the course of the next month, she tried desperately to get in contact with Stephanie’s mother, Brandy Devine, but to no avail.2
On the 13th of July, 2012, Brandy put Stephanie in her crib and closed the door. Despite the fact that Stephanie needed constant attention, Brandy would later say she didn’t open the bedroom door again until three days later. Brandy had spent the past three days smoking methamphetamine in the apartment. According to Brandy, she smoked meth because “it wakes me up and makes me clean the house.”
When she checked on Stephanie, unsurprisingly, she was dead. She had been closed inside a bedroom for three days with four cats, no medication and no food or water.
A neighbour, Lydia Whitworth, heard Brandy screaming and she rushed to her apartment to investigate. “The baby’s dead,” said Brandy. Lydia went into the back bedroom where she found Stephanie in her crib, lying on her back with her eyes rolled back in her head. “She was dead. She was totally gray. Her diaper was full of poop and urine and it was all on the bed,” Lydia recollected.3
Brandy called 911 and explained that her daughter was unresponsive. Medical personnel arrived at the apartment at 1100 block N. Denair Avenue. When they entered the bedroom, they were hit by an overwhelming smell of cat urine. Faeces covered the cluttered room. Stephanie was lifted from the crib but it was already too late. She was declared dead at the scene.
A pathologist determined that Stephanie had died from dehydration and malnourishment; her skin was red from lack of water and her abdomen was so caved that her spine was visible. The pathologist also determined that she had been dead for a day or two when found on the 16th of July. “There was no evidence of food or water in the stomach at all,” said pathologist Dr. Eugene Carpenter Jr.
Following Stephanie’s death, a neighbour named Carlton Whitworth came forward to say that he knew Stephanie and her siblings were being neglected. “They were always dirty and would run to my fridge looking for food. I felt bad for them and had a sleepless night last night wondering if I should have called CPS. But it’s different out here. I live in a no snitching zone,” he said.4
Brandy told police that when she put Stephanie to bed, she had a slight temperature but said that this was a common side effect of the medication. Brandy claimed that she didn’t know how her daughter had died and at one point during questioning, even suggested that her death may have had something to do with the cats.
During her interrogation, Stephanie said she had $400 left on her Electronic Benefit Transfer card which is an electronic version of food stamps. Despite this, she hadn’t purchased any groceries that weekend and also told police she could only feed her children once a week because she didn’t have transportation. “You were able to find dope last night. Why couldn’t you get your kids some food?” said detective Justin Williamson.
Furthermore, Brandy said she had expected her other 6-year-old daughter to take care of Stephanie and feed her. However, when her other daughter was questioned, she said she had tried to check on her sister over the course of the three days but was forbidden from entering the room by Brandy. 5
During Brandy’s trial, her mother, Shanda Gomes, defended her, stating: “She loved them. She was good with them.” She told the jury that Brandy had tested positive for meth when she gave birth to her second-oldest daughter but said she believed that Brandy had quit meth around a month before Stephanie died.
Dr. Eugene Carpenter Jr, who performed the autopsy, told the jury that Stephanie showed signs of long-term malnutrition. He said that she was about to turn three-years-old yet was the size of a one-year-old. At the time of her death, she weighed just 14 pounds her skin was like red dough, which was a sign of dehydration. He described how Stephanie would have suffered a slow and agonizing death.
During closing arguments, Deputy Public Defender Marcus Mumford didn’t contest the child cruelty and meth charges but alleged that Brandy didn’t know that not feeding her child would result in death. According to Mumford, Brandy was criminally negligent but didn’t commit homicide. Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne refuted this argument, however, and said that Brandy knew her actions could have grave results. He said that there was plenty of formula in the home and Brandy had fed her other children over the three days.6
The jury of six women and six men deliberated for around an hour before Brandy was found guilty of second-degree murder. During the sentencing hearing, Brandy addressed her family: “I accept full responsibility for my actions. I want to apologize to everyone who has been affected by my actions,” she said.
Brandy Williams was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
- The Modesto Bee, 7 November, 2013 – “Jury Views Police Video from Mom Accused of Murdering Daughter”
- The Modesto Bee, 5 November, 2013 – “Occupational Therapist says Turlock Toddler with Cerebral Palsy was Making Progress”
- The Modesto Bee, 1 March, 2013 – “Grim Details Emerged in Death of Turlock Tot”
- The Oakdale Leader, 18 July, 2012 – “Mother Charged in Death of Special Needs Child”
- The Oakdale Leader, 5 March, 2013 – “Turlock Mother to Stand Trial for Starving Daughter to Death”
- The Modesto Bee, 13 December, 2013 – “Turlock Mother Sentenced to 15 Years to Life”