The judge looked intently at Coeur d’Alene couple James and Denise Whittle on Tuesday morning as he sentenced them each to 10 years in Idaho prisons for abusing 6-year-old Elizabeth Goodwin, who drowned while in their care.
Despite the hours of testimony and the volume of documents, the judge said he still found a central question that had no answer:
“I appreciate Elizabeth being autistic. But there is no evidence, for me, to show how she vomited and drowned without making any noise that you would have noticed from 14 feet away,” 1st District Judge John Mitchell told Denise Whittle.
Denise Whittle told police she found Elizabeth Goodwin floating on her side in a bathtub the evening of Oct. 22, 2002. She said she had stepped away from the tub for only minutes to look up a telephone number in an adjoining bedroom. Police said they found food residue in the tub.
Mitchell told Denise Whittle she would serve eight of her 10 years before being eligible for parole. She had pleaded guilty to two felony counts of injury to a child — one was for the drowning, the other for a previous instance when Elizabeth Goodwin was scalded. James Whittle had pleaded guilty to one felony charge of injury to a child for a broken leg suffered by Elizabeth in 2001. He will serve three years before being eligible for parole.
In March, the Whittles reached agreements for reduced charges and entered Alford pleas, in which they concede there is enough evidence for a conviction but do not admit guilt.
Mitchell allowed both of the Whittles to begin their sentences with 180 days in a prison boot camp program that offers psychological assessments and other treatment. The two were handcuffed and led away directly from the court.
The Whittles have been free on bond in recent months, but each has served nearly nine months in the Kootenai County Jail since being arrested in February 2003. They have recently been reunited with their two biological children, the court was told.
The Whittles had become guardians of Elizabeth — and later her siblings Ethan and Eloise — by reaching a private custody agreement with Emily Goodwin in September 2000.
Larry Purviance, one of Denise Whittle’s public defenders, made an emotional plea that his client be allowed to walk out of the court on probation. A long string of social service workers called by the defense to testify at the sentencing “say Denise Whittle was an excellent mother,” he said.
“She has anguished about leaving the girl alone for those few seconds, those few minutes. It is a few minutes she will be haunted by for the rest of her life,” Purviance said.
Mitchell returned to those few minutes so weighted with grief when he read his sentence.
“We will never hear from Elizabeth about what happened,” Mitchell said. Denise Whittle has said the water was shallow. Police say a ring of residue suggests it was much deeper.
“A lot of the physical evidence doesn’t add up,” Mitchell said. “The level of water in the tub doesn’t add up. And, I don’t know how a child could vomit and drown without making any noise.”
Chief deputy prosecutor Lansing Haynes had called Denise Whittle a “Jekyll and Hyde.” Her friends and many of the social service and child-care agencies that worked with the Whittles and the children in their care “saw Denise as the super mom who could do it all,” Haynes said. Others, such as former stepchildren living with her in Nevada a decade ago, provided “evidence that she is capable of doing very bad things to children in her care.”
Mitchell admonished Denise Whittle to seek out psychiatric help during her six months in what is called the retained jurisdiction — or rider — program.
“You, in the last couple of days, have placed a lot of blame in the hands of other people,” Mitchell said. “That troubles me. Until you get over that, I don’t think you are a good candidate for probation.”
The death of Elizabeth has created deep fractures in the Coeur d’Alene social service arena as child-care or special needs workers have become polarized. Some believe the Jekyll. Some believe the Hyde. Witnesses have testified about receiving telephone calls from people trying to discourage them from going to court.
Two women who worked with Elizabeth in the Whittle home raised accusations of abuse just weeks before the girl died. The accusations became public after the death. One of those workers, Andrea McCarty, has had her character and motives attacked during the case. Emily Goodwin, who was barely 20 and a mother of three living in a car with a violent husband when she gave up Elizabeth, has been called a bad mother because of her poverty, her youth and her lifestyle.
But on Tuesday, Eloise Goodwin, Elizabeth’s great-grandmother, stopped near Andrea McCarty as a crowd shuffled out of the courtroom.
Eloise Goodwin patted the younger woman on the shoulder. “You helped. You helped a lot,” she said.
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