Jonathan Lytle, convicted by a Spokane jury of homicide by abuse last year for the death of his 4-year old daughter, was sentenced Thursday to 75 years in prison – an effective life sentence for the 30-year-old welder.
The sentence, imposed by Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price, is the longest homicide-by-abuse term imposed since the Washington Legislature created the statute in 1987, according to court briefs prepared in the high-profile, emotional child abuse case.
Lytle will be 97 ½ years old before he’s eligible for release from prison, said Jack Driscoll, the Spokane County deputy prosecutor who asked for the exceptional sentence based on last fall’s jury verdict. “I think the highest possible sentence was appropriate,” he said.
Lytle’s court-appointed public defenders from Spokane County Counsel for Defense had requested 26 ½ years, the high end of the range for homicide by abuse for someone with no prior criminal record. Lytle’s lawyers already are preparing an appeal.
Over six months in 2006 and 2007, Summer Phelps was beaten, bitten, shocked with a dog collar, burned with cigarettes, denied food and dunked in cold water after being forced to stand in a bathtub washing urine-soaked clothes for hours. Her red hair was pulled out in clumps and her body was covered from head to toe with bruises. She died March 10, 2007, submerged in the family bathtub.
Emergency room doctors and nurses who treated her testified during Lytle’s trial that it was the worst case of child abuse they’d ever seen.
Price said Lytle’s crime was so heinous – involving a trusting 4-year-old whose father was her “whole world” – that it deserved the maximum possible sentence. When he imposed it, Summer’s mother, Elizabeth Phelps, slumped in her courthouse seat, whispering “thank God.”
“I’m happy to know he’ll never walk the streets again and will never hurt another child,” she said after the sentencing. She also said it will remain a mystery why Lytle and Summer’s stepmother, Adriana Lytle, cruelly abused Summer.
Jonathan Lytle shed no light on that mystery.
In a short, barely audible statement before he was sentenced, Lytle told Price he wasn’t a bad person but knew he’d done something terribly wrong. “I hate myself,” he said.
In a recent telephone call from a nursing home in Wyoming where she lives, his mother, Janice Lytle, said her son “probably has mental problems” because she and her daughter both have suffered from mental illness.
Three victim impact statements were read before sentencing, written by Elizabeth Phelps, her sister Danielle Jones and Summer’s maternal grandmother, Deneen Phelps.
Deneen Phelps, of Sydney, Australia, said in her statement that she was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder due to the shock of Summer’s death and has had to take extensive time off work. She said she was close to Summer, holding her at her birth and taking 22–hour airplane trips from Australia to spend time with her in Western Washington.
“It’s a struggle some days just to get out of bed and get dressed,” she said.
Elizabeth Phelps, who cried as she read her statement to Price, said the loss of Summer is the hardest thing she’s ever endured.
“Our lives were planned out the day Summer was born, but now they are all gone,” she said.
The single mother said she’d trusted Jonathan and his wife Adriana when the couple persuaded her to let Summer come to Spokane to live with them temporarily in late 2006. They argued it was a good time for Summer to get to know her infant half-brother, Johnny, she said.
“They both gave me a hug and told me it is OK to take a break. They wanted her there,” she said.
Adriana Lytle, who pleaded guilty to homicide by abuse with aggravating circumstances last year, will be sentenced Friday at 9:30 a.m. The prosecutor’s office has asked Price to impose a similar sentence in her case – 75 years in prison.