What Whitley Evenson needs is continued treatment and help, her attorney and psychologist urged, not more time in prison.
Evenson, 21, pleaded guilty last month to involuntary manslaughter for the September 2015 death of her infant son, Derek. Tuesday at the Eastern Jackson County Courthouse, Circuit Judge Marco Roldan chose the non-prison route, handing her a seven-year suspended sentence and five years probation.
Roldan also listed several requirements for Evenson, including transitional housing at Sisters in Christ in Raytown, continued mental health and substance abuse treatment as outlined during witness testimony, obtaining her GED and eventually taking parenting classes. Roldan agreed with the prosecutors' request that Evenson not have unsupervised visits with her daughter.
In pleading guilty, Evenson admitted to causing 6-week-old Derek's death by placing her hand over his mouth, apparently to stop him from crying.
Evenson's attorney, public defender Paige Bremner, had hopes for a suspended imposition of sentence instead of suspended execution, as the latter keeps a felony on Evenson's record, but she said not heading to prison is a positive outcome.
Evenson, who was 17 at the time of her baby's death, has spent 40 months in jail since her initial arrest.
“I'm looking at what needs to happen in the future; not just now,” Bremner said in court before Roldan's sentence. “Her brain was developing while she was in prison. She is a different person now. She's going to be a young citizen in this community. What she needs is help.”
Roldan said two large factors loomed as he decided on a sentence. First, he said, is Evenson's mental health status, as there was “no question” she had such problems when Derek died.
Second, he noted that the average sentence for involuntary manslaughter cases is a little more than six years, but a small number result in probation, and if sentenced to prison Evenson could well be out on parole in less than a year – but right now she has help arranged.
Marilyn Hutchinson, the psychologist who evaluated Evenson, she has taken medication for bipolar disorder, PTSD and depression.
“I can see just looking at her it (medication) has had a big effect,” Hutchinson said. “She had PTSD from a variety of childhood and adult traumas.”
“This is a young person who at the time was extremely immature and very, very stressed. This would give her a chance to grow up and become an adult.”
Bremner had also noted Evenson's family upheaval, including an imprisoned biological father she doesn't know. Her adoptive mother was her grandmother's sister.
According to court documents, after her son died in on Sept. 16, 2015, Evenson initially told police she had awakened at home a few hours after feeding and changing the baby's diaper, only to find him still and not breathing.
Later, police received an audio recording from a man who believed Evenson was lying and recorded her discussing the death. She then admitted to police that she placed her hand over his mouth, though she knew it was wrong, and told police she thought her son was sleeping.
Prosecutor Erin Hunt argued for seven-year prison sentence, noting that Evenson could still receive treatment plus medication and get her GED while in prison. She also claimed Evenson had not demonstrated enough responsibility for her actions, including her fleeing to Idaho after she skipped a court hearing in 2016.
“Her upbringing is something she can't change, but it doesn't absolve her from what she did,” Hunt said. “Someone has to take responsibility for the death of Derek, and that someone is her.”
No victim-impact statements were given in court, and Evenson's family declined comment following her sentencing.