Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Benjamin Brown stands up during a recess during his sentencing hearing in Hamilton County Criminal Court on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.

A Signal Mountain man was sentenced to two years in prison Wednesday for criminally negligent homicide in the 2018 death of a 2-year-old Hixson girl.

Benjamin Spencer Brown, 30, was found guilty in the death of Annie Burkett Shell in February. He was ordered to consecutively serve his prison sentence followed by 11 months and 29 days in a workhouse for reckless endangerment by Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman.

"The circumstances of the offense involve dishonesty. They lack empathy for a selfless child," Steelman said. "[Brown] shows an incredible amount of selfishness, not just misrepresenting the facts, but affirmatively hiding the facts from law enforcement."

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Signal Mountain man sentenced on Wednesday

Brown, who stayed with Annie while his fiance Brandi Giannunzio, the girls' babysitter, went to the salon, told investigators that Annie suffered a seizure and was biting her tongue and pulling her hair out. Brown initially told investigators that Giannunzio was at the house when the incident happened, then said he was the only one there and failed to call 911 because he didn't know Annie's last name or date of birth.

Medical Examiner James Metcalfe determined the toddler was shaken and beaten, ruling Annie's cause of death to be blunt force trauma.

Steelman noted that Brown lied to police, therefore impeding the investigation of Annie's death. He also said the tone Brown used while detailing what happened to Annie was "mocking," saying the change of voice Brown used to imitate Annie was disrespectful.

Statements by the Shell family, as well as a character testimony about Brown, were heard at court.

Claude Stamey, 65, Brown's former father-in-law, testified that in September 2015 Brown stole from him while he worked for him. Stamey also testified that Brown beat him with a metal dog statue after he had open-heart surgery.

"He grabbed me, pulled me back," Stamey said, adding that Brown caused him to fall. "He crawled on top of me and grabbed that dog and started hitting me in the face with it."

He estimated he was hit 10 times.

Tiffany Shell, Annie's foster mother and grandmother, read a letter in which she highlighted the trauma she continues to endure after losing her daughter.

"Annie was the sweetest little girl. She loved gymnastics and playing outside. She loved pink," Tiffany Shell read. "I have flashbacks of Annie in the ambulance, when she went unconscious."

Tiffany Shell said she had to go to a mental hospital because she stopped eating.

"Every time I pass you, I get sick to my stomach — I thought for a long time, Ben, I thought you were innocent, but after seeing all this evidence, I have my own opinion of what happened. I've been told to forgive you, and I'm working on that. I do think that you deserve to spend time in jail."

David Shell, Annie's foster father and grandfather, expressed his disappointment in the legal system during his statement to the court.

"I don't know where to start, but I think you got away with it. Two years is nowhere near enough," Shell said. "I miss my little girl you don't deserve to have your kids."

Defense attorney Steve Brown requested the court to grant a judicial diversion, which allows defendants to avoid a criminal conviction on their record if they successfully complete a rehabilitation program and a period of probation.

"What we can't lose sight of, is that this is a crime of omission," Steve Brown said. "He wasn't found guilty of any intentional act."

Steelman denied the request, stating that Brown's engagement in the use of illegal drugs and other behaviors were of notice.

Brown was sentenced and taken into custody by sheriff's deputies.

Contact La Shawn Pagán at or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.