By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Washington | Mon Sep 9, 2013 11:09pm EDT
(Reuters) – A U.S. adoptive mother accused of starving her 13-year-old Ethiopian-born daughter and locking her outside in the cold, where she died from exposure, was found guilty of homicide on Monday in Washington state.
Hana Williams, adopted from Ethiopia in 2008, died of hypothermia in May 2011 after she was found unconscious outside shortly after midnight in temperatures hovering around 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius), authorities said.
The girl’s mother, Carri Williams, was convicted of homicide by abuse and of manslaughter linked to the girl’s death, while the father, Larry Williams, was convicted of first-degree manslaughter, a representative of the Skagit County Prosecutor’s Office said.
“It was a very sad, sad story,” Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney Rich Weyrich told Reuters. “It was something that shouldn’t have happened. Fortunately, we were able to prove the charges, so we were able to hold them accountable.”
The case is among several in recent years that have drawn attention to the vulnerability of children from overseas adopted by U.S. families, among them the death in January of 3-year-old Russian adoptee Max Shatto.
Texas authorities determined that Shatto succumbed to self-inflicted injuries and his parents were not charged in his death, but Russian officials seized on the case as justification of a 2012 ban on adoptions by Americans.
Larry and Carri Williams of Sedro-Woolley – a town about halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia – were arrested in September 2011, more than four months after Hana died in their backyard.
Investigators say Hana endured included beatings, starvation, being forced to sleep outside and use an outdoor toilet and that she had lost a significant amount of weight since her adoption. Prosecutors said her 10-year-old brother, who also was adopted from Ethiopia, was similarly mistreated.
The parents kept the family isolated from non-relatives, home-schooled the children and followed strict religious principles described in the Christian parenting book “To Train Up a Child,” investigators said.
Although investigators found the couple adhered to a harsh child-rearing regimen prescribed by the controversial parenting book, prosecutors have said religion was not relevant to the criminal case.
Appearing in court last month during the seven-week trial, Carri Williams was at once tearful and defiant under cross-examination by prosecutors. Shown a photo of her children, she accused prosecutors of having “ripped apart” her family.
“I did the best I could with what I knew,” she said.
In addition to the charges linked to Hana’s death, both parents were found guilty of assault of a child stemming from mistreatment of their 10-year-old son.
The jury deadlocked on whether the father was guilty of homicide by abuse, a more serious charge than manslaughter, said Vickie Maurer, an office administrator for Weyrich. Weyrich said his office was undecided on whether to retry the husband on the homicide charge.
Both parents could face a maximum penalty of up to life in prison due to aggravating factors in the crime, although prosecutors said the judge had discretion in how lengthy their incarcerations would be.
The Williamses will be sentenced next month by Skagit County Superior Court Judge Susan K. Cook.
Lawyers for the couple could not immediately be reached for comment.
Nearly 10,000 children were adopted into the United States from Ethiopia between 2008 and 2012, according to U.S. State Department figures – more than from any country other than China.
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)