The mother of Brianna Blackmond was given probation yesterday by a judge who said she did not deserve jail time for punching and neglecting the 23-month-old toddler in the days preceding a fatal beating administered by another woman sharing their rowhouse.
Charrisise Blackmond, 33, was not charged with the killing, which prosecutors said was carried out by Brianna's godmother, Angela T. O'Brien. But she was present when the girl was killed and then lied about it to protect O'Brien, prosecutors said. Blackmond, who has an IQ of 58 and reads at a first-grade level, stood teary-eyed before a judge yesterday, convicted of beating and neglecting Brianna on other occasions.
Brianna, a ward of the District, died in January 2000, two weeks after a judge removed her from foster care and returned her to her mother, who shared the rowhouse in Northwest Washington with O'Brien.
In the wake of O'Brien's second-degree murder conviction and sentencing to 19 years in prison, Blackmond entered the equivalent of a guilty plea in June to assault and child cruelty charges. Blackmond's sentencing marked the end of a case that exposed numerous failings in the city's child protection system and spurred changes in the way the city and courts keep track of vulnerable children.
Judge Geoffrey M. Alprin could have sentenced Blackmond to about a year in jail for beating Brianna and denying her medical treatment in the days before the killing, but instead heeded the recommendation of prosecutors and sentenced her to probation.
The judge, a 19-year veteran of the bench, said he felt especially "ill-equipped" to handle such a sentencing, saying, "I know an argument can be made that this is not the kind of case that should be tried in a criminal court." He added that his "first inclination is that she's been through a lot, and we ought to close the books, at least on the criminal side. On the other hand, I'm concerned . . . about the future."
Alprin expressed concern that Blackmond, who he said has 10 children, might have more, who could be subject to her poor parenting and poor judgment unless some degree of monitoring came with her release. Blackmond's attorney, public defender Santha Sonenberg, told the judge that Blackmond doesn't have custody of any of her children and said she doubted she ever will.
The judge sentenced Blackmond to 180 days on each of the two counts, but he suspended all of that jail time. In putting her on two years' probation, he ordered her to abide by any conditions set by the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, including counseling and therapy. If she fails to comply, she could be sent to jail.
Blackmond told the judge, "I will do everything I can to do what I'm supposed to do."
Jose Lopez, who was Brianna's foster father for most of her life, said he did not expect a harsh sentence but thought Blackmond would get more than probation.
"It is really ridiculous," Lopez said. "What kind of punishment is she getting after all this? We are just giving her a little spank on the hand and saying don't do it again. And then we're sending her free to do it again because who's going to be there to stop her?"
Blackmond, who has spent more than eight months in halfway homes, two months at a mental hospital and five days at the D.C. jail, walked briskly out of the courthouse yesterday. She and Sonenberg declined to comment.
Brianna died at Children's Hospital on Jan. 6, 2000, a day after O'Brien took the child by the shirt and pounded her to the floor as punishment for not sitting still while she braided her hair, prosecutors said. They said O'Brien and Blackmond conspired to hide the cause of the girl's death, with O'Brien instructing Blackmond and children in the home to say that Brianna had fallen down the stairs. Three of O'Brien's children and a nephew later testified against O'Brien.
Blackmond had originally faced charges of obstruction of justice, conspiring to torture her daughter and child abuse. In June, she entered an Alford plea to one count of assault and one count of attempted second-degree cruelty to a child. Under the plea, Blackmond did not admit guilt but conceded there was enough evidence for a judge or jury to convict her.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Taylor said Blackmond's "limited capacity," along with a desire to spare the children another trial, favored the plea agreement. "It seemed to suit the interest of justice best," he said.
Had Blackmond been convicted of the original charges, she could have faced a life prison term.
Prosecutors said that within the two weeks that Brianna was returned to her care, Blackmond punched the child and hit her with a belt, leaving marks and bruises. Three days before the toddler's death, prosecutors said, Blackmond called a medical clinic, reporting that Brianna was shaking uncontrollably. Blackmond was told to bring Brianna into the clinic immediately, but when she showed up three to four hours later, she left Brianna in the car, they said. She was asked to come back the next day, but she never did, the prosecutors said.
Taylor told the judge that prosecutors agreed that probation was appropriate, adding, "There was never any information that Ms. Blackmond had anything to do with Brianna's death."
A letter to the judge from Blackmond's attorney said "hours are like days" for her. "Yet, given her simple existence, and her respect for what is right, there is no reason to believe that she will ever come before the Court again."
Staff writer Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.