SPRING HILL — Tiffany Mitchell has spent what likely are her last days of freedom in the unremarkable way of a single mother trying to get by.
She loads her sons Shawn, 10, and Dylan, 8, into her battered green Buick each morning, takes them to the school, works a shift at a Hudson pizza parlor, picks up the boys, cooks their dinner and helps with their homework.
She has tried not to think about today, when a Hernando County judge will decide how many years, if any, she will be in prison for the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Kaylynn.
Prosecutors say Mitchell left on a nightstand an oxycodone pill that the brown-haired, blue-eyed girl found and swallowed. Kaylynn was found dead in her bed on Jan. 31, 2011.
Mitchell, 29, could spend as many as 13 years in prison, but her attorney and her family will plead for less time, even probation. On the scales of justice, they say, Shawn and Dylan's need for a mother should outweigh the need to punish a mistake.
"Whether it's probation or prison," Mitchell said, "I'll suffer every day for the rest of my life."
The prosecutor says a prison term is justified but has struggled over how many years.
"There's no formula you get to follow," Assistant State Attorney Donald "Sonny" McCathran said. "These are the cases that are a lot harder to call."
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The day before her daughter died, Mitchell picked up Kaylynn in Brooksville after she'd spent two days at her father's home.
Mitchell and a boyfriend took the children shopping, had dinner and went out for ice cream.
At her mobile home south of Brooksville, Mitchell tucked Kaylynn into bed and put on a Dora the Explorer movie. Mitchell took a shower and checked on Kaylynn about 10. She seemed fine.
About 6 a.m. the next day, Mitchell found Kaylynn blue and cold to the touch. Paramedics could not revive her.
The following month, a preliminary medical examiner's report showed Kaylynn had a high level of oxycodone in her system. A criminal investigation began.
"I was devastated," Mitchell recalled in an interview last week. "For months, I wanted to know what happened to her, and I almost didn't believe it."
Mitchell had a terrifying hunch. She told detectives she got an 80-milligram oxycodone pill from the boys' paternal grandmother for menstrual cramps. She said she left the pill on the nightstand in her bedroom and took a shower. When she came out, it was gone.
She told investigators it was possible that in the 15 minutes she was showering, Kaylynn got out of bed, went into Mitchell's bedroom, grabbed the pill, swallowed it and went back to bed.
The state Department of Children and Families sought a court order to place Shawn and Dylan in protective custody. The judge denied the petition but was direct with Mitchell: Stay clean and follow the department's directions or the boys would have to live elsewhere.
"She was very cooperative and did everything that was asked and precluded the need to remove those kids," said Carrie Hoeppner, a DCF spokeswoman.
Mitchell has not tested positive for drugs since the judge's warning.
She admits she used to smoke marijuana and occasionally took oxycodone but insists she's not addicted to pain pills.
Mark Tousignant, who helped raise Mitchell since age 12, said she is a caring, responsible mother.
"She's their rock," he said. "She's never been in a state of mind where she can't take care of her children or herself."
Mitchell was arrested July 12, 2011, and charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child. She posted bail the next day.
Her defense attorney, Jimmy Brown, told Mitchell that going to trial would be risky. If convicted, she faced up to 30 years in prison.
Mitchell pleaded guilty last month. Her lack of a criminal record made possible the deal to cap her sentence at 13 years, but she says she must accept responsibility in Kaylynn's death.
"I shouldn't have ever brought a pill like that into my house," she said, her voice breaking.
Kaylynn's father, Kraig Broshears of Brooksville, says he forgives Mitchell. The two dated for about six months and decided to share custody when Mitchell became pregnant.
But Broshears, 32, says 13 years in prison isn't long enough.
"She took a life by being irresponsible," he said. "She'll have time with her boys when she gets out. I have to wake up every day and not see my daughter's face.''
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Already a Catholic, Mitchell got baptized again after Kaylynn's death and started attending Bible study and church. She stayed in counseling for months, sometimes leading sessions, and has returned as a guest speaker to share her story.
She rededicated herself to Shawn and Dylan.
"I hear stories about parents who lose kids and they forget about the kids they still have,'' she said. "I promised myself I wouldn't do that."
One night last week, Mitchell and the boys sat at the kitchen table after sharing a stir-fry dinner. As they recalled a recent trip to the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, Shawn admitted the zip line ride made him nervous.
"You did it and you loved it," Mitchell said, laughing.
Describing his mother, Dylan said: "She works hard for us.''
Mitchell was with the boys' father, Max Snyder of Spring Hill, for nine years. Shawn and Dylan spend three nights a week with Snyder. He didn't return a call from the Times.
If Mitchell goes to prison, her sister Angel will assume her role.
"I know she would treat them just as I do and give them the love that they need," she said.
For now, she finds comfort in the Bible story of Job.
"He lost everything and still kept his faith, so that's what I'm going to do," she said. "I know if I live a righteous life, I'll see Kaylynn when I die."