ELKHART — Mande Turner-Berger was sentenced to five years of prison time Thursday stemming from the death of her daughter earlier this year.
One-year-old Mariah Gibson died May 16. Her 22-year-old mother, of Goshen, initially told police the girl was struck by a hit-and-run driver but later said the child fell from the vehicle she was in with her boyfriend, 30-year-old Daniel Pennington.
Turner-Berger’s lawyer, public defender Sarah Creagan, told Elkhart Superior Court 3 Judge George Biddlecome that Turner-Berger had known Pennington only four days. The lawyer also said her client is a “heartbroken woman.”
Biddlecome sentenced Turner-Berger to 20 years in the Indiana Department of Corrections on a count of neglect of a dependent causing death and 1 1/2 years on a count of obstruction of justice. Fifteen years were suspended, per a plea agreement, with the remaining prison time to be served concurrently. She also received 10 years of probation.
Turner-Berger is “very aware of what she did and she’s sitting here because of what she did.” Creagan said. Her client, she added, had never had a good mother role model growing up and realizes she needs counseling and parenting classes.
“I have already received the worst punishment a mother could receive, a lifelong sentence without my daughter,” Turner-Berger said in court, reading from a letter. Losing Mariah has ruined her life, she said, and she wasn’t even able to attend the toddler’s funeral and say goodbye.
“I love you, Mariah. You will always carry a place in Mommy’s heart,” Turner-Berger said. She apologized to her dead daughter and her family and said she can’t change “the visions” of the day the girl died.
“Grave errors were made,” Creagan said, including Turner-Berger’s failure to put Mariah in a car seat and lying to police about what happened. “She told me she has felt guilty for lying for a man who meant nothing to her,” Creagan said.
Chief Deputy Prosecutor Vicki Becker said a mitigating factor was that Turner-Berger ultimately accepted responsibility for Mariah’s death. “We know she’ll be in an emotional prison for virtually the rest of her life,” she said.
Turner-Berger received 113 days credit for time already spent in custody and 113 days of good time credit. Another part of the plea agreement prohibits Turner-Berger from accepting any direct care or responsibility of any child under age 12. Pennington’s case is scheduled to go to trial Nov. 7.