BROOKSVILLE — On a January night two years ago, Tiffany Mitchell put her three children to bed and stepped into the shower. The next morning, her 2-year-old daughter was found cold and blue in her bed.
Weeks later, Mitchell told authorities that she had left an oxycodone pill on the nightstand in her bedroom that evening, Jan. 30, 2011. It was possible, Mitchell conceded, that 2-year-old Kaylynn got out of bed, toddled into the room while Mitchell was in the shower, found and swallowed the pill, and went back to bed.
Investigators confirmed that Kaylynn, a little girl with light brown hair and deep blue eyes, died in her sleep of oxycodone poisoning.
On Friday, Mitchell pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter of a child. The charge carries a maximum prison term of 30 years, but as part of a plea deal with prosecutors, the 29-year-old Spring Hill woman's sentence will be capped at 13 years.
It's the lowest possible sentence allowed by law, but defense attorney Jimmy Brown plans to present evidence at a Nov. 4 hearing to give Circuit Judge Anthony Tatti legal grounds to depart from the guidelines.
Brown said he had a strong case, but the plea was in Mitchell's best interest, given the risk of going to trial.
"A jury could have easily said this is tragic but not such a violation of the duty to care for the child that we will convict her of a criminal offense," Brown said. "A jury also could have said she should have done something when the pill turned up missing, and this is criminal negligence."
During a motion hearing earlier in the week, Brown tried to convince Tatti that prosecutors had no independent evidence, aside from Mitchell's own speculative statements, that Kaylynn died as the result of a criminal act.
The day before she was found dead, Brown said, Kaylynn was in the presence of at least four people who were known to use oxycodone. There was no direct evidence of where the girl would have gotten a pill and ingested it.
But Mitchell, who has two sons, told investigators that her son's paternal grandmother gave her and her boyfriend an 80-milligram oxycodone pill that evening. Mitchell later told her boyfriend that she put the pill on the nightstand and realized it was gone.
Brown said he will argue that Tatti can depart from the minimum sentence because the incident was isolated and unsophisticated, and because Mitchell is remorseful. She suffers from post-traumatic disorder and is being treated by a psychiatrist, Brown said.
She has custody of her sons, now 8 and 10, and witnesses told investigators she is a good, caring mother, Brown said. She does not have a criminal record.
Assistant State Attorney Donald "Sonny" McCathran said the plea agreement was fair, given the facts of the case.
After the hearing, Mitchell said pleading guilty was also about taking responsibility.
"I should have never had something like that around my kids at all," she said. "This is for my daughter, and I want closure to this for me, my kids and my whole family."
Tony Marrero can be reached [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: @tmarrerotimes.