Texas woman gets maximum sentence of life in prison for confining 8-year-old in closet

Wednesday, January 30th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DALLAS (AP) _ A woman who confined her severely malnourished 8-year-old daughter in a filthy closet for months at a time received the maximum sentence of life in prison.

Barbara Atkinson, 30, was sentenced by a jury Tuesday after four hours of deliberations.

Jury foreman Albert Martinez said they felt no sentence less than life would be appropriate. He cited testimony that the girl would suffer emotional and cognitive problems her entire life.

Atkinson and her former husband, Kenneth, were arrested last June after the girl, who weighed 25 pounds, was discovered near death.

Atkinson pleaded guilty last week to a charge of bodily injury to a child. She faced between five years and life in prison during the punishment phase. Prosecutors said she will be eligible for parole in 30 years.

Prosecutor Susan Hawk said the victim will ``always be remembered as the girl in the closet.

``This is going to be a lifelong struggle, every step of the way,'' Hawk said.

Defense attorney Brad Lollar said his client had suffered a traumatic childhood. He said that during the first three years of Atkinson's life, she was neglected by her birth mother, a prostitute and drug addict, then placed with an adoptive home where she did not feel loved.

``Barbara is of course upset,'' Lollar said after sentencing. ``She told us to tell everyone she's sorry. She does sincerely regret what she did.''

He said Atkinson pleaded guilty because she did not want any of her other children, who are now in foster care, to have to testify in court. He also said the sentence would be appealed.

Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner said the girl has gained 25 pounds and grown 5 1/2 inches since her discovery. She is attending kindergarten.

Bill and Sabrina Kavanaugh, the girl's foster parents, are seeking permanent custody. They first tried to adopt her at birth, but had to return her to Atkinson because their attorney made a legal error.

After the sentencing, Sabrina Kavanaugh was allowed to address Atkinson.

``How am I supposed to explain to her what you did?'' asked Kavanaugh, in tears.

Atkinson, also sobbing, said: ``I don't know. I thought about that.''

Kenneth Atkinson, 34, is awaiting trial. He is charged with serious bodily injury to a child and aggravated sexual assault of a child.