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Mother pleads guilty, gets probation in baby co-sleeping death

Records suggest Katherine Anne Jennings had a history of alcohol abuse, and investigators believed that may have played a role in the deaths of two babies.
Records suggest Katherine Anne Jennings had a history of alcohol abuse, and investigators believed that may have played a role in the deaths of two babies.

Katherine Anne Jennings, the mother of two babies who died under questionable circumstances in 2012 and 2013, has been sentenced to five years of probation after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the second baby’s death.

In each case, Jennings told investigators she had been sleeping with her infant sons just before they died. Co-sleeping with parents often contributes to baby deaths. But criminal charges are rare.

Records suggest Jennings, 35, had a history of alcohol abuse, and investigators believe that may also have played a role in the babies’ deaths.

In a court hearing last week, a judge in coastal Brunswick County did not sentence Jennings to active prison time. Instead, Jennings received a suspended sentence of 10 to 21 months – meaning that she can avoid active prison time as long as she complies with the terms of her probation.

Under those terms, Jennings is not to have custody of children younger than 5. She’ll also be subject to random drug and alcohol testing.

This is every family’s nightmare. And it happened twice.

Kara Phillips, sister-in-law of Seth Phillips, the father of the two babies

Kara Phillips, a relative of the father and a lawyer who helped him in civil matters related to the tragedies, said Jennings’ sentence was “insufficient in light of the lives that were lost.”

But she applauded the prosecutor and detective who she said “went out on a limb to prosecute something that was difficult.”

“This is every family’s nightmare,” Phillips said. “And it happened twice. If it weren’t for (the prosecutor and the detective), there wouldn’t have been any accountability for her actions.”

In a statement that was distributed to the court during last week’s hearing, Seth Phillips – the father of the two babies – said the deaths will forever scar his 6-year-old daughter.

“She witnessed the deaths of two adored brothers on two separate occasions, and then endured the break-up of the family she knew, all occasioned by her mother’s criminal acts,” Phillips wrote. “My daughter has been damaged emotionally beyond measure.”

It was a very difficult thing, emotionally, for her to do.

Prosecutor Lee Bollinger, speaking about how Katherine Jennings struggled while pleading guilty in the death of an infant son

When Superior Court Judge Richard Brown asked Jennings if she pleaded guilty – and was in fact guilty – of involuntary manslaughter in the death of 8-month-old Luke Stephen Phillips, she had trouble answering, prosecutor Lee Bollinger said. After consulting with her lawyer, she eventually managed to answer “yes” to both questions, Bollinger said.

“It was a very difficult thing, emotionally, for her to do,” Bollinger said.

Jennings’ attorney could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

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.

Luke, the second baby, 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.

Sloppy infant death investigations

Studies show a majority of parents sleep with their babies at least some of the time. Supporters of the practice 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.

The Observer wrote about the deaths of Jennings’ babies in a 2014 story about how North Carolina medical examiners often leave key questions unanswered when investigating infant deaths.

At the time, the newspaper’s analysis showed that medical examiners almost never go to infant death scenes and sometimes ignore a state requirement to look at the baby’s body – two steps that experts say are crucial to competent inquiries.

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex

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