A Manassas father of 13 who inadvertently left his youngest daughter to die in the family's van on a hot day was spared all but symbolic jail time by a judge who ordered him to do volunteer work and told social service workers to closely monitor the family.
Prince William Circuit Court Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. sentenced Kevin C. Kelly, 46, to spend every Feb. 21 in jail for the next seven years, to volunteer for two hours each week and to sponsor an annual blood drive in the name of his daughter Frances on the Saturday following the anniversary of her May 29 death.
Alston could have sent Kelly to jail for up to 12 months -- the recommendation of the jury that convicted him of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. The judge said he ordered the seven days to honor the jury's desire that Kelly "see the inside of a jail," but said he felt Kelly's primary responsibility should be taking care of his family.
"I have no doubt you are a good man," Alston told Kelly from the bench yesterday afternoon during a 20-minute hearing. "But a lot of people out there think you're a despicable person for letting your daughter die alone. It's a shame someone had to die because of a mistake, as you put it.
"I can't bring Frances back. I wish I could," added Alston, who is known for trying to tailor sentences carefully to the crimes and defendants before him. "I need to take some serious steps to make sure you understand what you did and send a message to the community."
Frances Kelly was 21 months old when she died of hyperthermia, strapped in her car seat in the family's van for seven hours. Kevin Kelly, a civil engineer who is active in his church, said he forgot she was there as he did chores around the house. The convictions could have put him behind bars for up to 15 years.
In court, Kelly told Alston that he and his family have suffered greatly and have learned from the tragedy. "As Frances's father, she was my responsibility," he said. "And I failed her."
After the hearing, Kelly praised the judge, calling Alston a "creative mind," as his children piled into a van in the cold drizzle. Kelly's wife, Mary, wore a black veil over her face during the hearing, and their children embraced several times in the court's gallery.
"It was a horrible nightmare losing Frances," Kelly said. "My family was very, very concerned for some time that they were going to lose me, also. I'm so incredibly grateful to the judge for showing mercy on my family and for letting us be together."
The case had stirred public debate about how to punish Kelly, particularly because he and his family had suffered such a great loss. Jurors who convicted him said they struggled in reaching their recommendation for a 12-month sentence, knowing that Kelly hadn't meant to harm his daughter but feeling he had to be punished for letting her die.
One of the jurors, Harry Fulwiler, 66, said yesterday that the judge's sentence was well-reasoned, and he didn't begrudge Alston for reducing the jury's recommendation. Fulwiler said he viewed Kelly as "the absent-minded professor."
"All we really wanted to do was give this guy a wake-up call and to tell everyone else in the United States to pay attention to their children's needs and make sure this doesn't happen again," Fulwiler said. "Just the pain and suffering of losing his daughter, I think that will help him take care of his other 12 kids better."
During Kelly's seven years of probation, Manassas authorities will visit the family regularly and report back to the court on conditions at the house and on the welfare of the children. Court testimony during Kelly's trial showed that he was having difficulty taking care of the children while his wife was out of the country, ultimately causing him to lose track of his youngest daughter.
Prosecutors had said from the outset of the case that they wanted close monitoring of the Kelly family by social service workers, and Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert said yesterday that he believes the family can turn things around.
"I'm very confident these children won't get into the situation Frances found herself in," Ebert said. "I don't think these kids will be at risk as they were in the past. I hope I'm not wrong."
At the same time, Ebert said he had hoped the judge would go with the jury's recommendation because he considered the panel to be the voice of the community.
Alston's style on the bench differs from those of other Prince William County judges. In passing sentences, he sometimes strives to make an emotional connection with defendants. In other cases, he has ordered convicts to spend 24 hours or a weekend in jail on the anniversary of their crime, an effort to make sure the criminals remember their wrongs and their victims.
Kelly's attorney, Carroll A. Weimer Jr., said he's unsure whether Kelly will want to appeal his conviction in light of his sentence. Kelly has long been concerned about carrying the felony conviction on his record.
Another juror in the case, Robert Ratcliff, 63, of Lake Ridge, attended the sentencing and said he was comfortable with Alston's decision.
"We suspected the judge would exercise his prerogative and show some mercy," Ratcliff said. "There needed to be some punishment, and I feel that has been achieved. It's simply a tragedy."