OLYMPIA - A Lacey woman was sentenced to three years and four months in prison Monday in Thurston County Superior Court, a little more than a year after her newborn daughter's body was found in a cabinet in the woman's home.
Jessica Wemhaner, 30, earlier had entered an Alford plea to first-degree manslaughter. Under an Alford plea, a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges that there is enough evidence for a jury to convict in the event of a trial. An Alford plea is considered a conviction.
Wemhaner “hid her pregnancy from everyone,” including her husband and the doctor who assisted her after the baby’s delivery, according to a prosecutor’s sentencing memorandum.
The girl was posthumously named Angel on her death certificate.
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“There is no doubt that Jessica Wemhaner’s actions show that she did not want baby Angel to be found,” the sentencing memorandum reads. “If Angel Wemhaner had been found by her father, medical personnel, or law enforcement, it is probable that she would be alive today.”
Lacey police discovered the girl’s body Aug. 10, 2008, in a closed cabinet below the master bathroom’s sink in the south Lacey home Wemhaner shared with her husband.
Wemhaner’s attorney, Brett Purtzer of Tacoma, said Tuesday that his client did not know she was pregnant. He called the infant’s death a tragedy but added that Wemhaner had psychological issues as a result of four previous miscarriages.
Because of the miscarriages, Wemhaner “had been led to believe by her doctor that she could not carry a child to term,” one of Purtzer’s court filings reads.
Wemhaner’s doctor in Tacoma, Devin Sawyer, submitted a statement that during Wemhaner’s fourth miscarriage, she was admitted to a hospital with a significant hemorrhage that required her to undergo a blood transfusion.
“I do believe that she was under a significant amount of stress from the trauma of her previous experiences with pregnancy and that this has certainly contributed to how she dealt with her most recent pregnancy,” reads Dr. Sawyer’s statement.
Purtzer pointed out that he and the prosecution agreed to put language into Wemhaner’s plea stating that her “capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct, or to conform her conduct to the requirements of the law, was significantly impaired.”
Police were sent to the residence after Wemhaner was transported to Providence St. Peter Hospital earlier in the day with medical complications. A doctor at Providence St. Peter called 911 after finding a placenta and an umbilical cord, court papers state. Wemhaner answered “no” when the doctor asked her if she saw a baby, according to court papers.
According to Thurston County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Christy Peters’ sentencing memorandum filed in court, Wemhaner “initially denied knowing that she was pregnant, but later changed this to an admission that she believed she was pregnant sometime between April and June, 2008.”
Wemhaner initially was charged with second-degree murder.
During Monday’s sentencing hearing, Peters had recommended to Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch that Wemhaner serve a five-year prison sentence – 20 months more than the sentence the judge handed down.
A medical examiner ruled that the newborn’s death was caused by “asphyxia due to probable suffocation or smothering.” The manner of the infant’s death was not determined on the death certificate.
Purtzer’s court filings recognize that there was no evidence of trauma to suggest anything was done to physically harm the girl.
“She will live with this event forever, and she asks that this court consider that what occurred is truly an aberration from a productive life,” Purtzer wrote.
A statement by Lacey detective Bev Reinhold was also entered into the court record. Her statement describes the emotions she and the other investigating Lacey detective, Jeremy Knight, felt when they obtained a search warrant to enter Wemhaner’s home Aug. 10.
“In over twenty years as a law enforcement officer, rarely has a case caused as much emotional distress for me as this one,” Reinhold wrote. “… As we prepared the search warrant, it seemed incomprehensible that we would be asking a judge to search (for) a newborn baby. It is the only search warrant in my career where I was truly hoping I would not find what I was requesting to search for.”
Reinhold’s statement continues: “As Detective Knight and I began our search, it was equal to psychological terror. We had no idea what to expect with every drawer and cupboard we opened.”
Reinhold also urged the judge to give Wemhaner a five-year prison sentence.
“The actions of Jessica Wemhaner that morning not only altered the lives of her family, but also the investigators that worked this case, who will forever have this memory,” her statement reads. “At no time during the investigation of this case did we hear any words of regret from the mother of this unfortunate child.”
Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5465