Katherine Anne Jennings, the mother of two babies who died under mysterious circumstances in 2012 and 2013, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the second baby’s death.
In each case, Jennings told investigators she had been sleeping with the babies just before they died. Co-sleeping with parents often contributes to baby deaths, but criminal charges are rare.
Jennings was arrested in Charlotte late Monday night and transported to the jail in coastal Brunswick County, where the two babies died.
Brunswick County Assistant District Attorney Lee Bollinger said his office has never before filed charges against a parent who was co-sleeping when a baby died.
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Bollinger would not say what specifically prompted Jennings’ arrest. But he said similar cases nationwide usually involve parents who exhibit a dangerous pattern of behavior and disregard the safety of their children.
Under North Carolina law, involuntary manslaughter is a felony related to an unintentional killing. If convicted, Jennings could face 10 to 59 months in prison, Bollinger said.
Jennings, 33, was in jail Tuesday on a $50,000 bond.
The first baby, James Robert Phillips, was 4 months old when he died in June 2012. A medical examiner found that he had suffocated while sleeping with Jennings in the home they shared in Oak Island, about 30 miles south of Wilmington.
The medical examiner initially called the death an accident. State officials later changed the cause to “undetermined.” Bollinger would not say why no charges were filed in connection with James’ death.
The second baby, 8-month-old Luke Stephen Phillips, was sleeping with his mother on the couch on Dec. 13, 2013, when he was found unresponsive, according to a medical examiner’s report. Jennings told authorities the baby had been face up in her arms before he died.
The state medical examiner’s office ruled Luke’s death an accident, concluding that he suffocated. Co-sleeping, the office wrote, was a contributing factor.
Studies show a majority of parents sleep with their babies at least some of the time. Supporters say co-sleeping helps babies rest better, leads to more emotional stability and is done safely in other cultures.
But the American Academy of Pediatrics warns that parents should not sleep with their babies because it can lead to suffocation. They recommend parents put babies to sleep on their backs, alone in a crib, with no blankets, pillows or other objects.
A growing number of medical examiners say suffocation is to blame for many infant deaths. A 2010 Observer investigation found that although hundreds of infant deaths were attributed to sudden infant death syndrome in North Carolina, about two-thirds of the cases involved risk factors that suggested the babies may have suffocated.
Records suggest Jennings has a history of alcohol abuse. She has been charged at least four times with driving under the influence in Georgia, where she grew up. In one 2007 case, Jennings was asleep behind the wheel of a car that was in gear with the engine running, according to a report by the Savannah police department. The records don’t indicate whether the car was moving. Jennings later pleaded guilty to the DUI charge.
Jennings and her husband, Seth Phillips, lived with their children in Oak Island for about two years. The couple, who recently divorced, have a 4-year-old daughter who lives with Phillips in Tennessee. Jennings recently moved to Charlotte. Phillips, 32, serves in the Coast Guard and wasn’t home when either of the babies died.