Judge: ‘This was a horrible crime, a heinous crime’
May 6, 2009
On paper, Michele Baber of Grand Lake was a model foster parent: college educated in childhood issues, a stable marriage, no criminal record, no problems with alcohol or drugs, a stable income, the member of her extended family others leaned on in times of need.
As District Court Judge Mary Hoak put it on May 1, shortly before sentencing Baber to 16 years in the Department of Corrections for child abuse resulting in death ” negligence, “I couldn’t have written a better foster parent.”
Yet Baber killed 3-year-old foster child Daisai Derzon in January 2008 with a vicious blow to the head in front of her siblings, lied repeatedly about her role in the tot’s death and displayed an astonishing lack of remorse, according to prosecutors and law enforcement officials.
This disconnect arose time and again during Baber’s sentencing hearing last Friday as her attorney tried to convince the court to lean toward the low end of a sentencing range that could have entailed nothing more than probation.
Baber, who turned 31 on March 19, entered the District Court in Hot Sulphur Springs at about 1:30 p.m. dressed in an orange Grand County Jail jumpsuit, her hands shackled at her waist in front of her, thick brown hair pulled into a tight bun on top of her head.
After having several of Baber’s relatives address the court, Public Defender Sheryl Uhlmann began attacking a pre-sentence report that recommended the maximum sentence of 16 years in jail.
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She said the report is “selective” and “doesn’t capture the character of the whole of this case.”
Uhlmann said she was concerned the report left the impression that Baber is remorseless. For instance, she said, the report quoted Baber as saying, “It could have happened to anyone.”
“I don’t think she was trying to say ‘I’m not responsible,'” Uhlmann said, yet that is the impression the report conveys.
“She in fact feels horribly about this … but none of that is in the report,” she said.
Uhlmann pointed out that a mental evaluation of Baber indicates she has major depressive disorder, which can be accompanied by what others perceive to be a lack of emotion. Nevertheless, she said the probation officer who wrote the pre-sentence report “takes great stock” in his impression of Baber as having little or no remorse for her actions, “which is why he is recommending the maximum sentence.”
“I would very strongly disagree with that,” Uhlmann said, explaining that Baber’s affectation is just “naturally flat.”
She also said there’s no evidence of intent. “This woman did not mean for this child to die,” she said.
While arguing for probation or Community Corrections rather than jail, Uhlmann said Baber does not present a threat to the community.
“None of us are wholly defined by the worst thing we ever do,” she said, adding that Baber took responsibility for her actions by pleading guilty.
“What happened that day was an anomaly ” it was a one-time thing. … Sending her to prison for 16 years … is not appropriate,” Uhlmann argued. “She lives every day with the reality of what has happened here.”
District Attorney Elizabeth Oldham began her case for giving Baber the maximum sentence by having the Montezuma County Social Services caseworker who placed the three Derzon children with the Babers make a statement.
“I want her to pay for Daisai’s death,” said a tearful Kerri Orr as she turned to look toward Baber, who also began to cry. “I am so hurt.”
Orr said the Babers were in the process of adopting Daisai and her two brothers. Baber’s brother had testified earlier that the couple was “very excited” about that because Baber could not have children of her own.
One of Daisai’s brothers, who was 4 years old at the time of Daisai’s death, “has been labeled unadoptable” because he witnessed the incident, Orr said.
“This is a life sentence for everyone,” she said of the emotional fallout from Daisai’s death.
In spite of that, she said Daisai’s siblings, who are in foster home in Colorado Springs, keep asking case workers when they will be able to return to Grand Lake.
Daisai’s biological parents have had their parental rights terminated and the mother is serving time in the Department of Corrections.
Daisai was buried in Cortez “with me, because there’s no one else,” Orr said.
She also said she didn’t think Baber meant to kill Daisai and that the court “should have some compassion.”
“I think it’s so important that we never lose sight of Daisai,” said Oldham. “I would just ask that her life be honored in this court today.”
The DA recounted how, even during the autopsy, Daisai appeared “little, innocent ” she was darling … It was just such an outrage to see her there.”
Oldham said that during interviews, Baber said she hit Daisai because the baby “was pushing her buttons,” in effect blaming the child.
“This defendant was given a gift,” Oldham said, “and she hit her so hard that she killed her.”
She said Baber was holding Daisai’s brother when she hit Daisai. The brother, Oldham said, demonstrated during a psychological evaluation what had happened by clenching his fist, cocking his arm behind him, and delivering a hard blow to a doll.
To make matters worse, Oldham said Baber withheld information at a time when medical personnel were trying to save the child between the time she was hospitalized and three days later when she died.
“She (Baber) lied and lied and lied to the police” about what had happened, the DA said. “She covers it up with her lies, by minimizing what happened.”
As Oldham continued her argument, Baber shook her head “no” back and forth repeatedly.
“The law enforcement officials were all struck by her lack of remorse,” Oldham said, adding that officers characterized Baber’s demeanor as “completely casual.”
“If there is a case that warrants a maximum sentence, it is this one,” she said. “She killed a child; she is unremorseful.”
Judge Hoak said this case had weighed heavily on her and that she was glad Orr had been there to speak on parentless Daisai’s behalf.
“There is nothing but pain in this case,” she said.
Addressing Baber, Hoak said she was the one who was supposed to be there for Daisai. “Instead, you are the one they needed to be protected from. … You were the adult, you were the protector,” she added later. “Daisai was defenseless against you.”
“This was a horrible crime, a heinous crime,” the judge said, pointing out that not only was Daisai killed, there are “two other boys who are incredibly damaged.”
“Sometimes there’s just punishment,” she said. “Words fail me. … I can’t find the words because you took the life of a 3-year-old child.”
Baber’s shoulders jerked up and down uncontrollably as she sobbed while Hoak delivered her sentence: 16 years with five years of mandatory parole.
“This is one of those cases where there’s pain and punishment,” Hoak said just prior to the sentence.
Hoak said Baber will be credited with the 459 days she served in the county jail and that her actual time served could be less than the 16 years based on various factors such as time off for good behavior.
When given a chance to address the court, Baber declined and walked out of the courtroom, her face read and puffy and her head drooping toward her chest.
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