By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – A Wisconsin woman accused of torturing and starving her teenage stepdaughter pleaded no contest to child abuse-related charges Monday just before her trial was set to begin.
The 43-year-old woman entered the plea to first-degree recklessly endangering safety and causing mental harm to a child. A no contest plea is not an admission of guilt but is treated as such for sentencing purposes.
Both charges are felonies that carry a combined maximum penalty of 25 years in prison and $50,000 in fines.
Prosecutors agreed to drop four other felony counts in exchange, including false imprisonment, child neglect, child abuse and failing to prevent the sexual assault of child.
The Associated Press isn’t naming anyone in the family to avoid identifying the girl.
The stepmother would have faced up to 55½ years in prison and $105,000 in fines if she had been convicted of all six charges. The deal allows Dane County Circuit Judge Julie Genovese to weigh the allegations in the dismissed counts during the woman’s sentencing.
The judge didn’t set a sentencing date, saying she needed to consult her schedule and her regular clerk was out. The woman remains free on bond.
Genovese had scheduled a two-week trial to begin early Monday morning with jury selection. Before prospective jurors were allowed into the courtroom District Attorney Ismael Ozanne announced he had offered the woman’s attorney, Thomas McClure, a deal.
The judge gave the attorneys time to confer outside the courtroom. When they returned McClure told the judge the woman had decided to agree to the plea deal. She broke down in tears and could barely choke out “yes” when Genovese asked her if she understood what was happening.
McClure told reporters later he believes the girl, now 16, made up most of her allegations. But he said his client was convinced she wouldn’t get a fair trial because of what he called negative publicity about the case. He added the woman suffers from diabetes and the stress of the case has been hard on her.
“I don’t disagree with her choice,” he said. “The time has come to move on.”
The girl told investigators she spent most of five years confined in the basement of her family’s Madison home, where she said she was beaten, sexually assaulted and denied food despite begging to be allowed to eat.
She told investigators the abuse started the month she turned 10. She said her stepmother beat her and her stepbrother repeatedly forced her to perform oral sex on him.
The girl left the house on Feb. 6, 2012, barefoot and lightly dressed. A passing motorist found her wandering and called police.
A jury last month found the woman’s husband, who is the girl’s father, guilty of child neglect but deadlocked on several other charges, including intentional child abuse and false imprisonment. Ozanne told the judge Monday he planned to retry the man.
The girl’s stepbrother is set to stand trial in June on two felony sexual assault charges and one child abuse count.
Ozanne declined to comment on the stepmother’s plea deal because the father and stepbrother’s case are still pending.