When 3-month-old Mahelia Fender was killed in a crash on Feb. 10, 2010, it changed the lives of everyone who knew her — and even some who didn’t.
That included the attorneys who represented her mother, Jillian Fender, who was behind the wheel and on several prescribed narcotic medications when she ran a red light and slammed into another vehicle on Cliff Road near Galaxie Avenue in Eagan.
“I lost not only my baby ... I lost my life that day in some ways,” said Fender, who was sentenced Thursday by Dakota County District Judge Robert King for criminal vehicular homicide. The judge stayed a four-year sentence and gave her 30 days in jail.
Fender, 32, of West St. Paul, cried softly throughout the hearing and rubbed the back of one of her attorneys, Krista Marks, when she began to cry.
Mahelia died at the scene of the crash. Investigators found that her car seat was not installed properly, the plastic holder for the seat was broken and the seat’s harness straps would not have restrained a 12-pound baby. Two other adults in Fender’s vehicle were seriously injured. A mother and her 17-year-old son in the other vehicle suffered minor injuries.
Blood tests showed that Fender had taken several narcotic painkillers and anxiety medications, all of which can cause drowsiness.
Fender was originally charged with criminal vehicular homicide and four counts of criminal vehicular injury. She entered an Alford plea in September to criminal vehicular homicide. State sentencing guidelines call for four years in prison for that charge, but a presentence investigation recommended probation.
Prosecutor Heather Pipenhagen said the state agreed to a lesser sentence but told the judge she was concerned that Fender seems to have “no sense of responsibility” for running the red light, not having the car seat installed properly and having the prescription medications in her system. She noted that Fender has a “chronic pain condition” and “may always be on medication.”
Defense attorney Cullin Smith said Fender does feel responsible, but “it’s so very difficult to swallow the idea that she contributed to the death of her child,” he said. Although it has been two years, “it’s still very raw to her.”
Marks, the other defense attorney, said she believes she was put on the case because she had a son at the same time as Fender.
“As a mom, I can’t imagine being in the situation Ms. Fender is in,” she said. “It’s very difficult for her. Cullin and myself, as well. Children are her support system. She has three kids who rely on her.”
Both defense attorneys, from the Neighborhood Justice Center in St. Paul, told the judge that Fender has tried to make some good come from her daughter’s death. She has done work in the community, talking to young mothers to hopefully save them from the same fate.
Fender told the judge that she agreed to donate Mahelia’s organs, which saved three children and a nurse from her hometown. God has since blessed her with another baby girl, Fender said.
The judge was not unsympathetic. King stayed execution of the usual four-year sentence and ordered her to be on probation for up to five years. He said she could serve 30 additional days in jail, but in an unusual way: 10 days starting on Feb. 22 in 2014, 2015 and 2016. If she appears in court each year and proves that she is abiding by the terms of her probation, she won’t have to serve the time.
She will do 90 days on electronic home monitoring, attend a victim-impact panel, take a safe-driving course and not drive unless she is licensed and insured. She was given a $200 fine and must pay restitution.