Echo Terry sentenced in child starvation, abuse case
The woman convicted of starving and abusing three of her four former adopted daughters has been sentenced to serve 17 months of active time with 24 years suspended, although it is unclear whether she will spend additional time in jail.
A jury convicted 31-year-old Echo Terry on 12 felony counts in August, including three counts of second-degree assault for withholding food from the girls. The jury also found that aggravating factors applied to the case, meaning the maximum sentence she faced increased from six years to 30.
During sentencing hearings last week, prosecutors asked Anchorage Superior Court Judge Michael Wolverton to sentence Terry to 27 years of active prison time, while the defense requested a sentence that would essentially amount to time already served, primarily on an ankle monitor.
The judge will rule on whether she gets credit for time spent on the ankle monitor on July 29.
In March of this year, Terry was back in court after officials learned she had concealed a pregnancy and the birth of a child of her own while out on bail.
Official court log notes from the evidentiary hearing detail witness testimony from medical professionals who say Terry gave birth to a baby boy while awaiting trial. The notes indicate the child was born in the 50th percentile when it comes to weight, but diagnosed with failure to thrive after he continuously lost weight and dropped into the second percentile by about 6 months old. There were concerns the child was not getting appropriate nutrition at home, and he was hospitalized.
Terry’s son was removed by the Office of Children’s Services and placed into foster care with Nathanial Buck, the pastor of Agape Fellowship, a church in Palmer. The log notes indicate Buck testified that the boy came to live with him and his family in September 2018 and gained about a pound per month.
Buck, along with other members of the church, were present in the courtroom to support Terry during her sentencing. Buck spoke as a character witness for Terry, saying the boy was in his care for five and a half months before OCS returned the infant to his mother's care.
"I believe that they plan to wrap up their other portion of their OCS investigation here soon, completely showing that, once again, she was a good mother to her son," said Buck.
When asked after the hearing whether seeing images of the girls' bruised, scarred and emaciated bodies changed his mind, Buck said no.
During the trial, the court heard testimony about how Terry had occasionally struck three of the four girls she first fostered and then adopted in 2014. Jurors also heard evidence about how she withheld food.
Assistant District Attorney Reid Schweitzer said the three older girls, who were 4, 9 and 10 when they were taken from Terry's home showed signs of a serious medical condition.
"They had evidence of severe malnutrition and a condition that's called re-feeding syndrome," said Schweitzer. "Essentially, their bodies were so malnourished to the point that, had they been given a large influx of food, they could have actually died from that large influx of food."
All four girls were adopted by Dr. Melissa Shein and her husband Dimitri. In September 2014, Melissa found the oldest girl on a trail near the Alaska Native Medical Center. She thought the child was about 6 at the time, but later learned she was 10.
Both Dimitri and Melissa delivered victim impact statements during the sentencing process, pushing for the judge to give Terry a strict sentence and taking aim at the group of adults supporting her.
"Even after Echo Terry has been convicted of abusing three children, the pastor sat here — he saw the naked, tortured, beaten, bitten bodies of my daughters. He is here today testifying about how wonderful of a person this criminal, this monster is. It is absolutely unbelievable to me, and in fact, it's despicable. I find it repulsive. It shakes my belief in people, to see this," Dimitri said.
Melissa said she was happy the children were not present to see the public display of support for Terry. She also noted that in the four years Terry has been considered to be serving time in custody, while on an ankle monitor, she's experienced several of life's milestones, including finding a spouse and having her first child.
"Allowing her to be immersed in her church community, who hails her as a wonderful person, a great mom, only reinforces her disease and invites more victims," she said. "It’s not appropriate to regard this time in custody as time served. She couldn’t even wait until this process was over to resume abuse of children. What will happen when there’s no one looking after her? Judge, I cannot sleep just knowing that she will be allowed to prey on more victims."
Terry's defense attorney, Mary Burnell, argued the sentence the state proposed was on par with punishment for an aggravated murder conviction, and far too severe for Terry's case.
"In a civilized society, emotion cannot be the only guiding light when determining punishment," she said. "And that is why the Court of Appeals and the legislature provide so much guidance, and the sentencing criteria doesn’t support further confinement for Ms. Terry."
Thursday's hearing was the third in a series of sentencing hearings in which Wolverton heard arguments from the state and the defense, a statement in support of Terry and victim impact statements from the new parents of the girls she abused.
The judge said the state should not have allowed Terry, a single person with no parenting experience, to take on the responsibility of four adopted daughters with little supervision, but he was still "taken aback" by its sentencing recommendation.
“Echo Terry is not a monster," Wolverton said. "She’s committed serious crimes. She’s convicted of serious crimes. But the job of a sentencing judge would be much easier if we were only called upon to sentence monsters.”
Terry was also sentenced to serve five years probation.
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