BROOKSVILLE — Circuit Judge Anthony Tatti leveled his gaze at the mother who stood before him as both a defendant and a victim of her crime.
One morning nearly three years ago, Tiffany Mitchell found her 2-year-old daughter, Kaylynn, cold and blue in her bed. The brown-haired, blue-eyed girl everyone called Bella died of oxycodone poisoning, likely from a pill Mitchell left on a nightstand.
"There is absolutely nothing I can do to you today that would punish you any worse than you very likely punish yourself," Tatti told Mitchell, "but your daughter's life came to an end because of a decision you made for yourself, not her."
A moment later at Monday's hearing, Tatti sentenced Mitchell to 30 months in state prison.
Mitchell, 29, nodded her head as tears streamed down her face.
The punishment was far less than the 13 years Tatti could have given Mitchell, who pleaded guilty last month to aggravated manslaughter of a child. Her sentence was capped at the bottom of sentencing guidelines as part of a deal with prosecutors. If convicted at trial, she faced as many as 30 years in prison.
On Jan. 30, 2011, Mitchell put Kaylynn and two young sons to bed in her mobile home south of Brooksville and stepped into the shower. She went to wake Kaylynn the next morning and found her unresponsive. Paramedics couldn't revive her.
When an autopsy showed high levels of opiates in Kaylynn's system, Mitchell told detectives she'd left an 80 mg oxycodone pill on her bedroom table the previous night and realized it was gone after she got out of the shower. She acknowledged it was possible that Kaylynn got out of bed, toddled into the room, found and swallowed the pill.
Mitchell didn't have a prescription for the painkiller. She said her sons' paternal grandmother gave her the pill to ease menstrual cramps. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times last week, Mitchell acknowledged using oxycodone but denied that she was addicted to pain pills.
Mitchell has been out on bail since her arrest in July 2011. During Monday's hearing, 16 of the nearly two dozen of Mitchell's family members and friends sitting in the courtroom stood up and introduced themselves to Tatti as the people who sent him letters asking for mercy. Among them were Mitchell's sons, Shawn, 10, and Dylan, 8.
In the first row behind the prosecutor's table sat Kaylynn's father, 32-year-old Kraig Broshears. He and Mitchell were together for about six months and shared custody of the girl.
Broshears took the stand and directed the first part of his statement to his only daughter.
"I'll never get to see you go to school or lose your first tooth because your mother wanted to get high instead of be a mother to her child," Broshears said. A moment later, he turned to Mitchell. "I do forgive you but I'm not going to forget."
Mitchell didn't plead for leniency. She told Tatti she wanted to keep her daughter's memory alive by continuing to speak to groups about the dangers of narcotics.
"It's something I'll have to live with for the rest of my days," she said, her voice breaking. "I want to face this and continue to do what's right for her."
Defense attorney Jimmy Brown asked Tatti to show mercy on Mitchell for her "foolish, reckless" mistake. Brown noted her lack of criminal history and cooperation with the investigation. He said Mitchell suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome from terrible crimes inflicted on her and her two younger siblings when they were children.
Neither Brown nor Assistant State Attorney Donald "Sonny" McCathran offered Tatti a sentencing recommendation. Broshears didn't, either, but in an interview with the Times last week, he said 13 years wasn't long enough.
Tatti told Mitchell she failed her daughter the moment she realized the pill was gone.
"If you'd been thinking about Bella at that moment, you would have scooped her up, taken her to the hospital and had her stomach pumped," he said.
Mitchell's sons sobbed as they watched a bailiff fingerprint their mother. Family members declined to comment after the hearing.
Mitchell, who has been living with Shawn and Dylan at her mother's house in Spring Hill, kept custody of the boys after Kaylynn's death because she complied with requirements set by the Department of Children Family that included passing random drug screenings.
Brown said Mitchell is grateful for Tatti's ruling.
"It's the answer to a lot of prayers," he said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.