Amy Robinson lost two of her children to a 2009 mobile home fire and later watched two of her other kids taken away.
She came to court Thursday facing a possible 30-year sentence if convicted of felony charges relating to the deadly blaze. She pleaded to lesser charges, although her attorney said she wasn't negligent and that the fire was accidental.
In the end, Robinson was given probation -- not prison. The 29-year-old mother will now fight to get her living children back.
Her attorney, Marybeth Mullaney, said efforts will be made to help Robinson regain custody of the two children she lost after the fire.
Robinson pleaded guilty to two counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawful conduct toward a child. She had originally been charged with two counts of homicide by child neglect. Judge J. C. "Buddy" Nicholson sentenced Robinson to five years, suspended upon three years probation, on each charge. The sentences are to run concurrently and Robinson is to continue mental health counseling.
Assistant 9th Circuit Solicitor Debbie Herring Lash told Nicholson that the case came down to one of neglect "and not indifference" to the children. Lash made no recommendation
concerning sentencing, but Mullaney, who said Robinson spent 120 days in jail before bail was posted, asked for probation.
In a presentation that lasted more than an hour, Mullaney picked apart the prosecution's case against Robinson.
Robinson lost her 2-year-old son, Anthony Lazo, and 4-month-old daughter, Tatyanna Green, in a North Charleston mobile home fire on Aug. 24, 2009. Robinson's third child, then-4-year-old Savannah Barton, was rescued from the blazing home's back porch.
Investigators concluded that Robinson was not at home when the fire started. But Mullaney contended that in spite of what Robinson confessed, she was at home but sleeping when fire engulfed the mobile home.
She said Robinson awoke to find the trailer rapidly filling with smoke and flames, ordered the older children out and tried to fight the fire with a blanket.
Witnesses made statements that Robinson had singed hair and soot on her skin, and smelled like smoke after the blaze, Mullaney said.
"This horrible tragedy was an accident, an accident in the home with a parent close by," Mullaney said. She told Nicholson that Robinson suffers nightmares and flashbacks and that "nothing this court does could punish her more than she punishes herself today and the rest of her days."
Robinson suffers from mental illness and mental impairment, and has a thyroid condition that makes her lethargic and depressed, Mullaney said.
After reviewing all videos made at the fire scene, Mullaney said she could find nothing to back up an allegation that Robinson was absent when emergency personnel arrived, and that she had been video taped arriving at the home.
North Charleston police Detective Sgt. Kelly Spears, the lead investigator on the case, said in 2009 that Robinson confessed that she left her children alone in the home while she took a cigarette break at a picnic table down the road. She made the admission after failing four lie detector tests administered by an FBI polygrapher, Spears said.
Mullaney maintained the confession came only after days of questioning and one grueling, 10-hour interrogation at which police unnerved Robinson with false accusations of crack cocaine use. Robinson "was emotionally exhausted and with an IQ of 78 was no match for law enforcement," Mullaney argued.
Mullaney contended that incriminating information police gleaned from interviewing the 4-year-old who survived the fire was rendered useless by later findings regarding the child's cognitive abilities. An arson expert the defense consulted cast doubt on official assumptions that the fire was started by a child playing with a lighter, and found that it more likely began as an electrical fire, she said.
After sentencing, Mullaney said that in spite of having gathered a significant case for the defense, she and Robinson decided against going to trial. Juries are unpredictable, Mullaney said, "and if we had lost she was going to get 30 years."
Robinson was pregnant when the fire took two of her children, and she does not have custody of a child that survived the fire or the child born after it. The older child is in the custody of a Robinson relative and the younger child is in custody of Robinson's boyfriend, Kozak Green, but Robinson is not allowed to see either child, Mullaney said.
She said that Robinson was denied even the opportunity to hold her youngest child after giving birth. But with the criminal case having been settled, Robinson can pursue court action to regain contact with the children, the attorney said.
Robinson was voluntarily sterilized, her attorney said.
Mullaney said she was with the public defender's office when she first took Robinson's case. Although she is now in private practice, Mullaney said she remained on the case because she believes in Robinson. Public Defender Beattie Butler also represented Robinson on Thursday.