The mother of a 10-year-old boy walked from a courthouse lectern to an audience bench, a tissue clenched in each hand.
She had described — through tears — the deep purple bruising her son suffered at the hands of James Sanders, the phone call she made to police and her son’s apologies for crying during the assault. She told Judge Kerri Johnson about her son’s nightmares and the baby monitor she uses to monitor them. She told the judge about the boy’s progress in therapy and recent academic achievement.
Moments later, from the Natrona County District Court pew, the woman heard Johnson sentence Sanders, 28, to prison, where he might ultimately spend half a century.
Johnson on Tuesday morning sentenced Sanders, of Casper, to 18-28 years imprisonment for a count of aggravated child abuse and two counts of child abuse. A second case means his sentence totals between 30 and 48 years imprisonment.
Sanders last year admitted to sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl, for which Judge Daniel Forgey earlier this month sentenced him to 12-20 years imprisonment. On Tuesday, Sanders admitted to physically abusing three other children, including the 10-year-old boy.
District Attorney Dan Itzen told the judge Tuesday that a two-week-old boy that Sanders abused now lives with irreversible brain damage and frequent seizures. The boy, who is now 2 years old, has “limited to no” eyesight as a result of the abuse.
Sanders also threw a 2-year-old girl against a wall, and Itzen said when law enforcement came to the scene, the girl’s hair was still embedded in the wall.
Jail records indicate Sanders has been in custody for nearly a year as the two cases have wound to their conclusions. Although prosecutors charged him last summer, and he pleaded guilty to a single count of second-degree sexual abuse in the fall, the cases have been held up by a series of mental health evaluations.
In April, Johnson denied a request for a second competency evaluation in the physical abuse case, clearing the way for the pleas to three felonies he entered Tuesday and the corresponding sentence. After the April hearing, attorneys outlined a plea agreement to the Star-Tribune, which differed only slightly from the one presented in court Tuesday.
Weeks later, on the eve of Sanders’ sentencing for sexual abuse, he attempted suicide in his jail cell. Forgey declined to allow Sanders another mental health evaluation and moments later ordered Sanders serve 12-20 years imprisonment.
On Tuesday, Sanders appeared in Johnson’s courtroom, where his defense attorney, Dylan Rosalez, cited the suicide attempt and requested another competency hearing for Sanders. Itzen opposed the request, which Johnson soon denied.
About an hour later, Sanders returned to the lectern, where he pleaded guilty to two counts of child abuse and a single count of aggravated child abuse.
With his head bowed, Sanders said “guilty” three times in response to the judge’s questions.
Johnson dismissed a fourth felony against Sanders as part of the plea deal, which called for Sanders to serve anywhere from three to 28 years imprisonment.
The agreement consisted of attorneys recommending Sanders serve two to three years in prison on one count of child abuse, to run at the same time at his sentence for the count of aggravated child abuse, the sentence for which would be capped at 20 years. Prosecutors also agreed to cap their sentencing argument on the second count of child abuse to eight years imprisonment.
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Following the pleas, Sanders asked Johnson to sentence him immediately.
Once the sentencing portion of the hearing had begun, Itzen called two of the children’s mothers to give statements to the judge. The Star-Tribune has decided not to identify the women by name because doing so would effectively identify their children. The Star-Tribune typically does not identify child victims of severe abuse.
The first mother to speak told the judge that she had allowed Sanders to watch her child while she was at work. When she came home, the child was asleep and Sanders told her the child fell down a set of stairs but was not hurt, she said.
The woman went to sleep. The next morning, she woke and saw the child had bruising across her forehead. After the woman went to an emergency room, she was separated from her child for a matter of days. When the child returned to her care, their relationship had changed, she said.
“It broke my heart knowing she couldn’t trust me anymore because I put her in a situation she couldn’t control,” the woman said.
The mother of the 10-year-old then walked to the lectern, where she read from a series of prepared statements. She told the judge that Sanders had spanked her child to the point of severe purple bruising across both his buttocks.
After she completed reading the first statement, she cried. Itzen placed a box of tissues on the lectern.
The woman then told the judge that when the boy returned to school he could not sit for class because of his injuries. Administrators allowed him to stand instead. She said that although the boy initially struggled in school as a result of the abuse, his grades have recently improved.
She said her son still has nightmares about the abuse and she’s taken to keeping a baby monitor in the 10-year-old boy’s bedroom.
Itzen then detailed the severe brain damage that the youngest child — whose mother did not speak during the hearing — has as the result of Sanders’ abuse. Itzen said the child remains on a feeding tube.
“That child’s fault in life was being left alone with (Sanders),” Itzen said.
The prosecutor asked Johnson to sentence Sanders to 25-28 years imprisonment, in addition to the sentence for sexual abuse.
Rosalez then told the judge that Sanders had been abused as a child and had taken responsibility for his crimes. Citing Sanders’ criminal history and age, Rosalez asked Johnson to sentence Sanders to 10-20 in prison, in addition to the sex abuse sentence.
After Johnson handed down the sentence, Sanders left in the custody of sheriff’s deputies. He has already been incarcerated for nearly a year and that time will count toward his sentence.