A North Georgia foster mom pleaded guilty Monday to a charge of voluntary manslaughter.
Clara Louise Edwards faced a charge of felony murder but pleaded guilty to a lesser offense. A jury had already convicted her of first degree cruelty to children earlier this year, and on Monday Judge Ralph Van Pelt Jr. sentenced Edwards to a total of 20 years in prison for both of her charges.
In December 2013, police said, Edwards drove 2-year-old Saharah Weatherspoon to TC Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger. She said the girl had fallen down the steps earlier that day but seemed OK. Edwards said she later found Saharah unconscious in the toddler's bedroom, next to her wardrobe. Presumably, she had fallen climbing the furniture.
An autopsy concluded Saharah died of brain trauma. During a trial in February, prosecutors argued the trauma was the result of several months of abuse from Edwards, who had become Saharah's foster mom in May 2013. A doctor testified during the trial that Saharah was covered in bruises on her face, body and arm when she died.
The prosecutors also brought forth witnesses from the Gingerbread House Child Care Center and a local church who said they were concerned Edwards was abusing Saharah, based on bruises they found on the girl. Those witnesses said they reported their concerns to the Department of Family and Children Services in the months before Saharah's death.
Edwards' attorney, Dan Ripper, argued during the trial that prosecutors were overlooking Saharah's traumatic experience before Edwards became her foster mom. In 2013, Saharah's father, Ellis Weatherspoon, was arrested in Blue Ridge, Ga., on a charge of stabbing the girl's mother, then taking Saharah and her brother to a trailer. There, according to The Associated Press, Weatherspoon threatened to light all three of them on fire, though deputies intervened before he could act.
In February, a jury acquitted Edwards on a charge of malice murder but found her guilty on a charge of cruelty to children. The jury also failed to reach a unanimous verdict on a charge of felony murder, and the prosecutors had the option to bring a new trial on that charge.
Edwards was scheduled to face a new jury to determine whether she was guilty of felony murder — until she pleaded guilty Monday.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.
This story was updated June 27 at 11 p.m. with more information.