TAMPA — Every day for three years, Kristy Schwade has pictured the last time she saw her son Kaleb smile. She had left him in the arms of a day care worker, with the words, "Mommy loves you."
And every day since then, she has thought of what she might say to the woman who shook him so hard that his brain swelled, wiping out his cognitive functioning and severely disabling him.
The young mother who captivated thousands on MySpace.com with photos and updates from the intensive care unit watched Thursday as Rebecca Saunders, 38, pleaded guilty to aggravated child abuse with great bodily harm.
Schwade buried her head in her husband Josh's shirt and cried as the prosecutor detailed the case. Then, just before the sentence, Schwade got a chance to speak.
"Kaleb will never be able to live without medications and round-the-clock care," Schwade told her. "He cannot see some days, and his hearing comes and goes. The only way he can get nutrition is through a hole in his stomach that is hooked to a pump that pumps food directly in there.
"He will never be able to taste ice cream or candy. He will never walk. He will never be able to play on the playground with other kids.
"Kaleb will never be able to sit on his own or ride in the front seat of a car. He will never go to prom. He will never have a girlfriend. …
"I never got to hear him call me mama or give me kisses. Josh and I will spend all our lives caring for Kaleb as if he is a newborn stuck in an adult's body."
Saunders' sentence for the crime: 16 months with credit for the 487 days she already served, meaning she could be immediately released.
She would have faced 30 years if convicted by a jury, but prosecutors chose to offer a deal, based on the medical evidence they had. Assistant State Attorney Kimberly Hindman said there would have been inconsistencies.
Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Spradley said the defense would have presented evidence of a prior injury on the baby's brain and a gastrointestinal bleed. She also would have noted that the baby had been diagnosed with breathing issues and was vomiting a day earlier.
The outcome of a trial would have depended on which set of facts a jury accepted. Prosecutors did not want to risk an acquittal.
The Schwade family has a lawsuit pending against Saunders and those associated with Hanna's House Family Day Care LLC, which operated in a Northdale home. Its license is now inactive.
In a letter from jail this March, now part of the civil case file, Saunders addressed the lawsuit and her criminal charges.
"I NEVER harmed Kaleb Schwade in ANY way," she wrote. "I am awaiting a criminal trial in which time I am confident that I will be found NOT guilty."
In court Thursday, her attorney noted that she was pleading guilty in her best interest.
Schwade said that despite the short sentence, she is satisfied that Saunders is now labeled a child abuser.
"This is her admitting that she is guilty," Schwade said. "It wasn't six jurors that convicted her. She convicted herself, and that's the most important thing."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.