Ricky Slater is no longer a father.
One month after pleading no contest to charges of killing his 3-month-old daughter, Slater, 19, relinquished his parental rights to the surviving twin, Kelsey, at a custody hearing Friday.
Slater's face reddened and he hung his head after signing the document.
"Be strong, babe, be strong," said Slater's father, Joe, who attended the hearing with his wife and two children.
But Lindsey Ammerman, who was also at the hearing, said she will always consider Slater the father of her child.
"I can pull out her birth certificate any time I feel like it," Ammerman said. "It doesn't matter what anybody else says."
Ammerman and her mother, Carla Hernandez, have been fighting for custody of 15-month-old Kelsey since the child was placed in the custody of her maternal great-aunt following her sister Lacie's death in September 2000.
Ammerman, 17, waiflike in a gray-hooded sweat shirt and plaid pants, said she didn't want to discuss Slater's decision to give up his legal status as a father.
"It doesn't matter," she said, shrugging. "It doesn't mean he didn't help create her."
Slater still writes Ammerman letters from prison, and Ammerman has said they hope to reunite when he is released.
Slater accepted a plea bargain last month rather than stand trial on a first-degree murder charge. Facing a possible life sentence, he agreed to serve 12 years in prison, two years under house arrest and one year on probation for the death of his daughter, which prosecutors labeled "a classic case" of shaken-baby syndrome.
Defense attorney Jim Cummins, who represented Slater in the custody hearing, said his client had planned to fight Department of Children and Family Services charges that he was unfit as a father because he would be in prison for the next 12 years.
But the night before the hearing, Slater suddenly changed his mind. If he had been declared unsuitable, DCF may have been able to take future children away from him, and Slater didn't want that risk, Cummins said.
"It's unfortunate," he said. "I believe Ricky was put in a situation where he couldn't roll the dice in the criminal case, and that affected this case."
Slater was first arrested on Sept. 27, 2000, just days after Ammerman told investigators she returned home from doing laundry to find Lacie unconscious. The child was rushed to Seven Rivers Community Hospital, where doctors discovered as many as 17 rib fractures and bleeding inside her skull.
Lacie was flown to Shands at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she died the next day.
Police said Slater was alone with Lacie the day she suffered her fatal injuries and became agitated because the child had been crying.
Kelsey had also suffered abuse, doctors said. While she was placed in the custody of her great-aunt, Fayetta Whitehead of Hernando, Ammerman and her mother, Hernandez, were granted visitation rights.
Hernandez exited Friday's hearing in tears. She has fought for more than a year to get custody of Kelsey, and she's become increasingly frustrated by the process.
"I just don't understand how they can continue to keep Kelsey away from us," Hernandez said, wiping her eyes. "She belongs with her family."
Hernandez keeps a shrine to her twin granddaughters in the living room of her Crystal River townhouse, and she submitted a poem about her struggle to keep her family together to Kelsey's court file.
For now, the case is still undecided.
"We're just trying to get Kelsey home for the holidays," Hernandez said. "That's all we can ask for."