What an Allegheny County Common Pleas judge called some of the "worst" lawyering he had ever seen meant the difference Friday between life in prison without parole and a sentence of six to 12 years.
Ronda Watts, who suffered from postpartum psychosis when she killed her 2-year-old daughter in 2007, pleaded guilty to a general count of criminal homicide on Wednesday.
On Friday, Judge David R. Cashman found the Hill District woman guilty of third-degree murder. He sentenced her to six to 12 years in prison, and she will immediately be eligible for parole.
Watts, 31, pleaded guilty in 2009 to the same general count of criminal homicide. Her then-defense attorney, James Sheets, who had postponed the case five times, failed to present any evidence on the woman's behalf, including a lengthy history of mental illness, featuring a previous bout of postpartum depression.
Based on that lack of evidence, Judge Cashman found Watts guilty at the time of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory prison term of life with no chance for parole.
"It was probably one of the worst performances I've ever seen," Judge Cashman said of Watts' first hearing. "I had no picture of you other than a cold-blooded murderer who could suffocate her own daughter."
When contacted Friday, Mr. Sheets had no comment.
Watts obtained a new lawyer, Thomas N. Farrell, and quickly filed a request to withdraw her plea based on ineffective assistance of counsel.
According to investigators, Watts called police to report Bryonna missing on Jan. 11, 2007.
Officers searching the home found the girl in a cardboard box in a bedroom closet with a plastic bag over her head. Her body was still warm, but she was pronounced dead.
During a police interview, Watts first denied knowing how the girl died, but she later confessed.
She told detectives her daughter had complained of a sore throat and would not stop crying. Watts said she put her hand over Bryonna's mouth to quiet her and the girl passed out and fell to the floor.
The woman told detectives she suffered from postpartum depression after her then-4-month-old son was born.
On Friday, in a statement by Watts read by Mr. Farrell, she said she had been taking medication at the time, but when she started to feel better, she stopped.
In that statement, Watts thanked Judge Cashman for giving her a second chance.
"My guilt and shame that I carry because of what happened on Jan. 11, 2007, can't even be described," she said. "If I would not have been so scared to tell my husband or family members about the voices, things would be different, and you would never know who I was."
Watts said she had always been the responsible one in her family, helping to raise her younger siblings.
"I didn't want them to think I was crazy," she said. "I can honestly say my actions that day were not done intentionally. I would never do anything to hurt my children. ... I don't have a violent history, and all my family and friends can tell you my children are my world."
After taking on the case, Mr. Farrell had his client evaluated by a psychiatrist and submitted to the court voluminous medical records documenting the woman's struggles with postpartum depression, as well as sexual abuse she endured as a child.
Judge Cashman said that after reviewing the records he felt compelled to find Watts guilty of third-degree murder. He said he did not believe that at the time of Bryonna's death the woman had a specific intent to kill.
"Any sentence I impose upon you is not going to bring your daughter back, and it won't change the knowledge that you are responsible for that death," Judge Cashman said.
Paula Reed Ward: email@example.com or 412-263-2620.