A Pierce County jury this month convicted Leanne Bechtel of killing 3-year-old Autumn Franks of Lakewood, rejecting Bechtel’s contention that the family dog caused the girl’s fatal injuries.
Bechtel, 29, maintained her innocence Friday when she appeared before Superior Court Judge John McCarthy, calling prosecutors’ allegations that she snapped one morning and violently struck her boyfriend’s daughter “ludicrous.”
Autumn and Bechtel were not related by blood, but the defendant told McCarthy she treated the girl as her own child.
“She wasn’t just my daughter; she was my best friend,” a tearful Bechtel said.
McCarthy, who presided over Bechtel’s second-degree murder trial, said the jury had spoken and sentenced her to 19 years, six months in prison.
“The scientific evidence was substantial,” the judge said.
The sentence was less than deputy prosecutor Lori Kooiman requested, but more than Bechtel’s attorney Brett Purtzer wanted.
Kooiman had requested 24 years, six months, saying Bechtel deserved a sentence outside the standard range of 11 to 19 years because Autumn was a particularly vulnerable victim and Bechtel abused a position of trust when she killed the girl. The jury made those findings in its verdict.
“There was absolutely no way Autumn Franks could have defended herself,” Kooiman said. “A lifetime was lost here.”
The deputy prosecutor argued at trial that the girl’s injuries, including a large skull fracture, could not have been caused by the family pit bull, Dozer, knocking Autumn off the couch as Bechtel contends. Kooiman called numerous doctors and other expert witnesses to bolster that point.
The most plausible explanation was that Bechtel became frustrated and violently hit the girl or slammed her head against something, Kooiman said.
Autumn’s mother, Amanda Nichols, told Bechtel, “You destroyed a part of my life.”
“I wish they would give you the death penalty,” said Nichols, who had asked the girl’s father to take care of Autumn and the girl’s older brother when she no longer could.
The girl’s paternal grandmother, Lora Franks, said Autumn’s death tore her family apart.
“The worst part is the trust this little girl had in this woman,” Franks told McCarthy. “It’s almost holy. For her to betray that trust. I can’t imagine a worse crime.”
Purtzer asked for a sentence of 11 years, two months. He told McCarthy that sentence would be adequate punishment for a woman who contends she did not kill the girl.
Bechtel’s stepfather, Terry Wells, then addressed the court, saying he believes Bechtel is innocent.
Wells pointed out that the majority of the expert witnesses who testified at trial said Bechtel’s story about the dog, while unlikely, was not impossible.
“I believe science does not always get it right,” he said. “I believe in Leanne Bechtel. I believe in her innocence.”
A tearful Bechtel then told McCarthy she was not “a violent or vicious person” and that allegations she killed the girl were “disgusting and untrue.”
McCarthy acknowledged the contentiousness of the trial but said the jury worked hard to render a proper verdict.
“Parents, even good parents, have the capacity to become frustrated and lash out and snap,” the judge said.Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644 adam.lynn@ thenewstribune.com