Traci Leann Carpenter pleads guilty to child abuse in infant's 2006 death

Traci Leann Carpenter pleads guilty to child abuse in infant's 2006 death

February 27th, 2014 by Todd South in Local Regional News

Traci Carpenter leaves Hamilton County Criminal Court with her attorney Lee Davis after she pleaded guilty to child abuse in the 2006 death of her 18-month-old daughter Sierra.

Photo by Todd South/Times Free Press.

Janice Carpenter should have a 9-year-old granddaughter to play with, tickle and brag about.

Instead she has aging photographs of blue-eyed Sierra Carpenter, who didn't live past 18 months.

She has carried those photographs with her through a trial and seemingly endless court hearings over the past eight years.

On Wednesday those photos were near when she heard the one word she had waited for all that time -- guilty.

Standing before Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole, Traci Leann Carpenter, Sierra's mother, pleaded guilty to a single count of child abuse in the toddler's April 27, 2006, death.

A sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 19, when she faces a two- to four-year sentence. Traci Carpenter's attorney, Lee Davis, will argue that she's eligible for probation.

She had faced a trial on a charge of aggravated child neglect, which carried a 15- to 25-year prison sentence upon conviction. That charge was dismissed as part of the plea deal.

Prosecutor Neal Pinkston likely will argue for prison time. Neither would comment about the case Wednesday.

While Janice Carpenter had pushed for a trial, she said after the hearing that she had come to understand it was out of her hands. All she wanted was someone to take responsibility for the girl's death.

"Somebody has to pay for a dead baby," she said. "Somebody has to be responsible for my little granddaughter."

Sierra's father, Joshua Carpenter, celebrated one Christmas with his daughter before he was killed in a January 2005 car crash.

At first Sierra, who resembled her father, was a painful reminder of the loss. But the little girl's wide smile soon brought joy.

"She was a piece of Josh," Janice Carpenter said. "The last thing we had."

She and her husband purchased a burial plot for Josh in Hamilton Memorial Gardens. It was cheaper to buy two, so they did.

After Joshua died, Traci Carpenter spiraled downward, Janice Carpenter said. The 19-year-old mother would later admit to driving around, her daughter in the car, while high on marijuana and methamphetamine.

She began dating Brian Rutherford.

On April 24, 2006, Sue Petty, Traci Carpenter's mother, dropped Sierra off at her granddaughter's Hixson home. Petty later testified that the girl had a single bruise on her forehead but no other marks on her body.

The next day Rutherford noticed that Sierra wasn't breathing right or responding. He went to the kitchen to get her a glass of juice. He then carried her upstairs to Traci, who was in the shower.

He then rushed the girl to the Dallas Bay Volunteer Fire Department, where emergency workers saw bruises all over the girl's face and a hand print on her tiny chest.

For the next two days doctors at T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger treated Sierra. When Traci arrived at the hospital, family members refused to talk to her.

They kept asking: "What have you done?"

Rutherford had fled to Georgia. But the pair talked over the phone.

"You ain't gonna tell [the police] I did it, are you?" Rutherford asked Traci Carpenter, in a recorded conversation later played for a jury.

"No," Carpenter replied.

"How did all this happen, because I mean [Sierra] was fine," Rutherford then asked.

"I don't know what to think," Traci Carpenter said. "Everyone is looking at me like I'm crazy."

Sierra died of respiratory problems and blunt-force trauma to the head on April 27, 2006.

A medical examiner's report and trial testimony detailed signs of ongoing abuse, including bleeding on the brain, blood in the eyes and bruising in the deep recesses of Sierra's ears.

Within a few days, then-Hamilton County Sheriff John Cupp named Traci Carpenter a "person of interest" in the investigation of Sierra's death.

Traci Carpenter took a polygraph test administered by a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent and passed. Davis has previously said that investigators promised at the time they would not charge her if she passed.

In February 2007, she was indicted on a charge of aggravated child neglect. Rutherford was indicted on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse.

Over the course of a two-week trial in November 2008, prosecutors pressed the theory that Rutherford had abused the child, resulting in her death.

But multiple defense witnesses pointed abuse allegations at Traci Carpenter, who still faced the neglect charge. Defense attorneys said the case was based on a "sloppy" and "incompetent" investigation and there was a rush to blame Rutherford when evidence pointed to Carpenter.

A jury acquitted Rutherford after 58 minutes of deliberation.

Janice Carpenter said shortly after the trial that she asked prosecutor Leslie Longshore what would happen with Traci Carpenter. She says Longshore told her it likely wouldn't go anywhere.

The grandmother didn't like that answer.

"[Sierra] died a horrible death. She suffered," Janice Carpenter said. "And I wanted justice for her."

So she pressed, and pressed and pressed.

And Traci Carpenter's attorneys fought. They fought to get a jury from outside Hamilton County, they fought the admission of photographs of Sierra's bruised body, they appealed to the state Supreme Court to rule on issues before the trial.

In all, at least five trial dates were scheduled over the past six years. Each was delayed because of further motions, continuances and once because Traci Carpenter's due date was near the trial date.

While awaiting trial, Traci Carpenter married James Caleb Millard in October 2011 and gave birth to a girl, who is now 2 years old.

Then, last week, Janice Carpenter met with prosecutors. They told her they would offer Traci Carpenter a plea.

Every year on her son Josh's birthday the family goes to the graveside and releases balloons. They used to go on Sierra's birthday, too. But they avoid the grave on that day to avoid running into Traci's family.

She reflected on buying the two plots that now hold her son and granddaughter, side by side.

"It was like God already knew," she said. "But you know Josh and Sierra are together. That's the blessing."

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.