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ALEXANDRIA, VA. — A Quantico woman was sentenced Thursday to 8 ½ years in prison, far less than what was sought by prosecutors, for fatally shaking and fracturing the skull of a 9-month-old girl who had been left in her care.
Amy Hunter pleaded guilty in January in U.S. District Court to second-degree murder in the April 2011 death of Chelsea Peterson. At the time, Hunter lived on Marine Corps Base Quantico with her husband and provided day care for Chelsea , whose family also lived on base.
Court records indicate the baby died from violent shaking that resulted in the baby’s head hitting a wall. Doctors who examined Chelsea said the injuries were among the worst they had seen; one likened Chelsea’s head injuries to being struck with a baseball bat.
The plea deal required the judge to impose a sentence somewhere between five and 19 years at Thursday’s sentencing hearing. Defense lawyers sought the minimum, while prosecutors sought the maximum.
Federal public defender Geremy Kamens said Hunter was overwhelmed by sleep deprivation and depression by trying to care for Chelsea and her own infant child at the same time, while receiving no help from her husband.
Hunter tearfully apologized for her actions before she was sentenced.
“I am so, so sorry for what happened to Chelsea,” she said. “She was a beautiful girl and she did not deserve what happened to her.”
Prosecutor Patricia Haynes said 19 years would have been appropriate given the circumstances: Hunter at first lied and told investigators the baby had fallen down the stairs. She also apparently waited more than 20 minutes before calling 911; her computer showed that she conducted Internet searches on “Baby hits back of head and falls asleep and is limp” 20 minutes before the 911 call was placed.
Hunter had conducted similar Internet searches several months before Chelsea’s death, and Hunter admitted that she shook Chelsea at least one other time. In addition, when Chelsea was taken to the hospital before her death, doctors found she had a suffered a broken rib at least three weeks prior.
“Many women all over the world care for two or more children,” Haynes said. “Her circumstances were not unique, and they do not set her apart.”
Peterson’s family was disappointed by the sentence.
“I think it’s terrible how we value children’s lives so little,” Chelsea’s mother, Jennifer Peterson, said after the hearing.
In court, she wept as she gave a victim impact statement to Judge Anthony Trenga.
“To this day I can’t believe my Chelsea is gone. There is a huge hole that has been created that will never heal,” she said. “I will never understand why … and frankly no reason is good enough.”
Chelsea’s grandmother, Kathryn Gavin, described her memories of a visit Chelsea made to the grandparents’ home in Williamsburg, Iowa, the week before her death.
“She was the fastest crawler and stair climber in the Midwest,” Gavin remembered. “She had little monkey feet, and she could climb anything. She never got ornery. The only time I ever heard her get cranky was when she got hungry.”