A Spokane jury found the father of 4-year-old Summer Phelps guilty of homicide by abuse for his role in the beating and torture of his daughter in a cramped Spokane apartment that became her death chamber.
In its verdict Friday, the jury also found Jonathan Lytle, 30, guilty of aggravated circumstances – giving a green light to an exceptional sentence that could keep him in prison for most of his life. His wife, Adriana Lytle, has already pleaded guilty to homicide by abuse for Summer’s death and awaits sentencing.
The child was beaten, burned with cigarettes and shocked with an electric dog collar. Clumps of her hair were pulled from her scalp. On the day she died – March 10, 2007 – she was forced to wash urine-soaked clothes for hours before she was dunked in the bathtub and drowned. Doctors, nurses and police detectives said during the trial that Summer’s was the worst case of child abuse they’d seen.
“It was the most emotional case I’ve ever had,” Spokane police Detective Brian Hamond, the lead detective in the investigation of Summer’s death, said after the verdict.
Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael P. Price read aloud the verdict from the eight-man, four-woman jury. In addition to their homicide by abuse verdict, they returned a special verdict finding Lytle guilty of deliberate indifference and cruelty to a vulnerable child and using a “position of trust” to commit the crime.
Summer’s biological mother, Elizabeth Phelps, sobbed as the verdict was read. Lytle stared straight ahead, as he had during much of his trial, showing no emotion as Price ruled he’d stay in jail without bond until sentencing. Five sheriff’s deputies hustled him back to jail.
Jack Driscoll, Spokane County’s chief criminal deputy prosecutor, said he was pleased by the verdict.
The standard sentence for homicide by abuse is 20 to 28 years, but Price now has the leeway to give Lytle a sentence beyond that range because of the aggravated circumstances verdict. A sentencing date hasn’t been set.
“We’ll file a brief next week for an exceptional sentence. What we ask for will be substantial,” Driscoll said.
Phelps, of Poulsbo, Wash., sat through the entire trial with her sister, Danielle Salas, of Tacoma, and with staff from Spokane County’s victim-witness program and Spokane County Sheriff’s Office Chaplain John Thompson.
Lew Cox, the executive director of Tacoma’s Violent Crime Victim Services, also sat with her through most of the trial. Cox, whose own daughter was murdered, sees Phelps in a support group.
“I am excited and joyful knowing that Summer got justice,” Phelps said. She said she had allowed Summer to come to Spokane to stay with the Lytles in late 2006 but expected her child to be returned to her and didn’t know she was being abused.
“That little girl loved her daddy. I don’t know why he did what he did,” Phelps said.
Lytle’s court-appointed attorneys, who had tried to withdraw from the case and retained an expert psychologist who argued unsuccessfully that Lytle was mentally incapable of standing trial, summed up their reaction in two words.
“We’re tired,” said Edward Carroll, of Counsel for Defense.
He had argued in his closing arguments that Lytle was a bad parent but wasn’t indifferent to Summer’s death. “The system did its job.”
The jury’s ruling that Lytle exhibited extraordinary indifference to his daughter’s life “was very easy for us,” said presiding juror Dan Houk, the owner of Wilbert Precast Inc. of Spokane and the father of three children.
“There was so much good evidence from the detectives. It was very well done,” Houk added.
As jurors began deliberations Friday morning, they went through the court’s instructions methodically and had no problem reaching a unanimous verdict, Houk said.
The 12 jurors and two alternates “hung in there” during days of emotional testimony and graphic photographs of Summer’s hundreds of injuries, he said.
“We did pretty well. But after writing down the verdict, we let our emotions out. We hugged, cried and prayed,” Houk said.
Before the jurors left the courthouse Friday to decompress at a nearby bar, they invited Elizabeth Phelps, Summer’s mother, to the jury room.
“We asked Elizabeth questions about Summer. We learned she was a happy little girl who loved to play. Her favorite color was pink, and she loved being a princess,” Houk said.
“I think the community was behind us in our decision,” he said.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.