A 26-year-old man who pleaded guilty to smothering a 5-month-old infant last year was sentenced on Tuesday to 40 years in prison, with five of those years suspended.
The sentence imposed by special District Court Judge James Wheelis makes Marc Allen Palmer eligible for parole in just under nine years, and is only slightly more lenient than what prosecutors asked for, a maximum possible sentence of 40 years without any suspended time.
“In the state’s view, 20 years is a light penalty for killing a 5-month-old child,” deputy county attorney Brian Lowney said, referencing the part of his recommendation specifically for the charge of killing the infant.
Originally arrested and charged with deliberate homicide a year ago, Palmer pleaded guilty to an amended charge of negligent homicide in May under a plea agreement. He also pleaded guilty to felony criminal endangerment for covering the mouth of the infant’s sibling, and made what is called an Alford plea — meaning he agreed the prosecution could prove the charge at trial — to felony evidence tampering.
According to charging documents, emergency responders went to a Missoula home on March 30, 2016, after reports that child Brayden Beal wasn’t breathing. The infant was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Medical staff noted bruising around the baby’s mouth, according to court documents, and an autopsy later determined the child died of asphyxia by smothering. Palmer, who is not the baby’s father, and the child’s mother had been staying at Palmer’s mother’s home. Palmer’s mother told police she had woken up the day Beal died and heard Palmer saying “Knock it off, Brayden.”
Blood on baby wipes found in the home were tested and found to match the infant’s DNA, although Palmer told police the blood was his after he used the wipes to clean up a bloody nose.
Myranda Palmer — Palmer’s younger sister who testified at Tuesday’s sentencing — called her brother a “very, very phenomenal man” and “my hero.”
“He’s never done anything wrong in my eyes,” she said.
In response to a question from Chief Deputy County Attorney Jason Marks about this comment, Myranda said she did not believe her brother had committed the homicide to which he pleaded guilty, and accused the infant’s mother of having killed the boy.
Palmer and his siblings were taken away from their parents at a young age, his sister said, and were moved through many group and foster homes.
Psychologist Laura Kirsch, who performed the mental health evaluation on Palmer, said his upbringing likely had a significant effect on learning coping mechanisms and other skills that most adults use in times of stress. She said Palmer also scored very low on an intelligence test she administered.
At one point during Kirsch’s testimony, Judge Wheelis told Palmer’s family and friends in the gallery to stop making gestures and distracting reactions.
“If you can’t control yourself, I’ll have you thrown out or jailed,” he said.
Palmer has a juvenile criminal record of child rape and child molestation in Washington state, where he was found to have repeatedly abused an 8-year-old girl when he was 15.
Kirsch said the vast majority of people who commit sexual assaults as a child do not reoffend as an adult, and advocated treatment, counseling and appropriate medication for Palmer.
Public defense attorney Lisa Kauffman challenged the judge to “take a stand” against a system in Montana that works to treat children who are abused, then throws them in prison when they become adults and commit crimes. She requested that half of the 40-year sentence be suspended.
“The state is asking this court to impose the maximum sentence ... all because of an accident,” she said.
Wheelis said he felt Kauffman’s case, and the testimony of Kirsch, were accurate in referencing Palmer’s difficult childhood, but that it didn’t change what had been done in this case.
“We have to face having someone like that, regardless of whose fault it is,” he said.