Vanessa Clark, 37, hugs a family member after being sentenced by state District Judge Paul White to serve 119 months in prison on the charge of child endangerment for the July 2010 co-sleeping death of her infant son.
Posted: Thursday, August 23, 2012 1:54 pm | Updated: 10:33 am, Fri Aug 24, 2012.
By JESSICA COOLEY/The Lufkin News
A Lufkin mother on Thursday was sentenced to one month shy of 10 years in prison in connection with the July 2010 co-sleeping death of her 4-month-old son.
Baby Tristan was Vanessa Clark’s second child to die while sharing a king-sized bed with her and her husband Mark. Following the 2009 death of 1-month-old Christian, which was ruled Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Child Protective Services advised the couple not to share their bed with any future children, according to previous reports.
For the first time since the case began, Clark took the stand in her own defense Thursday, claiming it was never her intention to fall asleep with the baby in the bed. She went on to say that being up all hours of the night with a newborn while continuing to care for the couple’s 3-year-old was exhausting.
“I fell asleep. It was not intentional,” Clark said. “He has to fall asleep beside me. Once I put him in the bassinet, he woke back up and I put him back in bed with me. I had no idea I was going to fall asleep.”
Clark’s husband was tried on the same charge in May, but a jury found him not guilty. Prosecutor Dale Summa put Mark Clark on the stand Thursday, questioning him about his wife’s judgment on the night in question.
“You told your wife to place the baby in the bassinet. Is that true?” Summa asked.
“Yes. Before I fell asleep, he was in the bed,” he said.
Summa went on to question Mark Clark about his wife’s treatment of their 3-year-old at the time their infant died. After answering “she was hard on him, but nothing serious,” Mark Clark called upon his attorney Bill Agnew for a private discussion.
Agnew then announced his client wished to invoke his spousal privilege to prevent him from testifying against his wife.
“He only wants to testify about what he legally has to and nothing else,” Agnew said.
Summa went on to question Mark Clark about the couple’s home life, going back to the night in question and his wife’s prescription drug addiction.
“When you’re a mother, you’re going to stay up half the night taking care of the baby. I’m not going to say the medication did it,” he said.
After hearing from a few of Clark’s family members, her attorney, John Reeves, called her to stand to address her previous criminal history, the five years she spent in prison and her oldest son, who has been raised by her grandparents.
“I’m not the person I used to be. Prison changed me,” she said. “Please don’t take me away from my children. My son starts school Monday and I would like to be there for that.”
In cross examination, Summa asked Clark about her tanning while she was pregnant with baby Tristan.
“How important was it for you to get that tan?” Summa asked Clark.
“It wasn’t vital. Just something cosmetic. I didn’t have to have it,” she said. “My doctor told me it was OK after my third month.”
“And who was that?” Summa asked.
“I can’t recall because I saw so many doctors,” she said.
All of the testimony was completed around 1:30 p.m. Because of a previous aggravated assault conviction, Clark’s child endangerment charge was enhanced from a state jail felony to a third-degree felony.
Given all the facts of the case, White was then faced with deciding whether Clark merited probation or spending up to 10 years in prison. Clark stood, trembling, as White announced her sentence — 119 months in prison. She immediately began sobbing as her husband clasped his head in his hands crying.
White told Clark the case is about more than just co-sleeping, bringing attention to her abuse of Xanax and hydrocodone.
“I may be painted as a home wrecker, but you had the capacity of doing that on your own,” White said. “Understand this is not about the illegality of co-sleeping, it is about a number of factors you had in your life. Unlike you, I cannot ignore the prior episode.”
He went on to tell Clark that her sentence — 9 years and 11 months — means she will be eligible for bond upon filing an appeal because he had the foresight to sentence her one month shy of 10 years in prison.
“If you walk away with an appeal bond, are you going to make a media exploitation of this?” he asked her. “Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes, get on national TV,” she said, shaking her head.
In May, Clark and her husband appeared on Inside Edition to talk about the case.
“I have sympathy and empathy for anyone who loses a child,” White said, “but my concern for children always trumps that of an adult.”
With his wife put in the custody of Angelina County, Mark Clark said they will likely hire their own attorney on the appeal to get her out of jail as quickly as possible on a $10,000 bond.