Woman whose daughter died in fire enters Alford plea

State drops manslaughter, will recommend alcohol, psychiatric treatment

April 19, 2000|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

A charge of manslaughter against a Cape St. Claire woman in the death of her daughter in a 1998 fire was dropped yesterday at the state's recommendation -- the prosecutor saying she received her punishment when the 12-year-old died in the flames.

The mother, Carol Sheats Martin, 33, entered an Alford plea to the charge of reckless endangerment in Anne Arundel Circuit Court -- a plea in which she does not admit guilt but concedes that the state would likely win a conviction against her.

"The goal in charging her was to have the court acknowledge the defendant's responsibility in the death of her child and to ensure she gets the proper treatment so that something like this never happens again," said Assistant State's Attorney Laura Kiessling, the prosecutor.

Martin's daughter, Danielle Sheats, was burned so badly that paramedics did not attempt to resuscitate her. Two firefighters and Martin's boyfriend, whom she has since married, suffered burns trying to rescue the girl.

Martin initially told county fire investigators that she started the fire in December 1998 at her house by lighting paper napkins in a candle.

Martin, who was drunk and suffering from psychiatric problems at the time of the fire, may not have meant that, said her lawyer, Dale Cooter, who told the judge that an expert hired by the defense believed the blaze likely started after Martin fell asleep while smoking.

"What happened here is a tragedy," Cooter said. "We don't believe she committed a crime."

Because the state had several witnesses who heard Martin admit she started the fire and because she says she doesn't remember how the fire started, Cooter said it made sense to accept the plea agreement.

The state's attorney's office is recommending a five-year suspended sentence for Martin in favor of probation with intensive psychiatric and alcohol abuse treatment. Sentencing is scheduled June 7.

"I don't think the judge could give her a more severe sentence than the one she's given herself," Kiessling said after the court hearing.

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