Convicted of manslaughter of child, woman gets year sentence
Maria Liddell was sentenced Friday to four more months in the El Dorado County Jail for the death of her infant son, making her total time in jail one year.
Public Defender Rick Meyer recounted a terrifying tale for the court Friday of a 19-year-old Liddell giving birth, totally alone in the bathroom of her mother’s home, never once calling out for help, terrified that her domineering mother would discover her secret. Meyer said Liddell was traumatized by a painful and difficult breech birth that forced her to pull her son out feet first and left the child near death, if not already dead.
This was a different version of the birth than the one gleaned from her initial interviews with police back in February. Before her arrest Liddell, now 21, never made any mention of a breech birth and told investigators that her baby was breathing at birth.
When Liddell pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter at the end of September, Meyer said he didn’t believe the evidence against his client established the crime. Liddell entered her plea pursuant to “People vs. West,” which means the defense can agree that the court can make a finding of guilt, based on police reports and records, to protect Liddell from a trial where she might face more serious consequences. She was originally charged with first-degree murder.
Meyer said Friday his client’s statements along with reports from psychologists and other sources gave the judge new mitigating evidence. Meyer painted a picture of a troubled, naive and immature girl who suffered emotional abuse at the hands of her mother, and who had been battling eating disorders since the fifth grade.
Meyer said the detectives jumped to conclusions in their investigation and that Liddell was consistent during her interviews that the baby didn’t move or cry at birth.
An autopsy of the remains revealed a full-term infant, but sex and health at birth were undeterminable because of the stage of decomposition. The examiner also found a fractured skull and broken collarbone, but couldn’t tell if the injuries occurred before or after death.
Meyer said the breaks supported his client’s story about a breech birth.
In her written statement to the court, Liddell recounted the delivery in June of 1996. Liddell said she was at her mother’s home in Concord, Calif., watching television when she went to the bathroom and felt the baby’s foot.
“I didn’t know what to do. I felt scared,” Liddell said.
She said that when the baby finally came out, one leg was chalky white and the rest of the baby was purple and blue. She slapped the baby’s bottom and tried to perform CPR. She heard a sound come from the baby’s throat. Liddell said she knew she needed to get the baby to a hospital, but fearing her mother’s detection, she stayed to clean up the bathroom. She wrapped the baby in her robe and concealed the child in a basket of laundry, finally sneaking it out of the house to her 1974 red Volkswagen Bug.
“I put the basket in the back seat and drove about a block away. I got out of the car and picked up my baby from the basket. I held him and got back in the driver’s seat. I turned on the ignition so I could go to (the hospital). I held him to me and looked at him. Then I realized he was dead. I felt like dying. I just held him and cried. I didn’t know what to do. I thought of taking him to a police station or to a hospital, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t let anyone take him away from me,” Liddell said.
Liddell returned to her mother’s house where she wrapped the child with the laundry she used to clean up the afterbirth and placed the items into plastic bags and placed the bags into a suitcase. The suitcase was then wrapped in plastic bags and placed in the trunk of her car.
Two days later Liddell bought a lock for her car trunk. Liddell said she continued to keep the child’s remains in the trunk because she couldn’t bare to give them up.
“During the next 18 months, when I was really missing him, feeling sad for him, wanting to be near him, I would sleep in my car so I could feel closer to him. Once I tried to bury him, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let him be by himself. I felt that I would be leaving him,” Liddell said in her written statement.
The “i” in Maria on Liddell’s signature at the bottom of her statement was dotted with a heart.
The baby’s remains were in Liddell’s trunk for more than a year and a half until a tow truck driver stumbled onto them one Sunday evening in February after towing Liddell’s VW from a snow removal zone.
Meyer argued that if Liddell was really a cold and callous killer she could have easily disposed of the baby in the forest after she moved to Lake Tahoe in the winter of 1996. Meyer said although it was “clear that Maria didn’t handle this situation appropriately” the evidence he presented created doubt as to whether she did anything to contribute to the baby’s death.
Deputy District Attorney Peter O’Hara questioned why Liddell didn’t mention the breech birth to investigators.
“Why keep that a secret? Why not tell about the foot coming out unless it’s a contrived defense?” O’Hara asked.
O’Hara read from transcripts of Liddell’s earlier statements to detectives, mentioning a question from the investigators who asked Liddell if the baby was breathing up until she placed him in the laundry basket.
“Liddell’s response, ‘Yeah, but he wasn’t crying,'” O’Hara read. “She indicates in all three interviews that there is life, was life, and should be life as we sit here today,” O’Hara said.
Liddell also told investigators that she had an abortion around Jan. 28, 1997 at a hospital in Sacramento when she was about three months pregnant – just seven months after her bathroom delivery.
The maximum sentence for voluntary manslaughter – the intentional unlawful killing of a human being without malice – is 11 years. Judge Jerald Lasarow said he could see no benefit in sending Liddell, who has no previous criminal record, to prison but he said a message must still be sent.
“People must know that regardless of how this happened it cannot happen,” Lasarow said.
Liddell was given five years formal probation. If she should violate probation she could be sentenced to six years in prison.
“I think it might be a good idea, somewhere down the road, during her probation that she give talks to high schools and to girls who might be facing her same situation,” Lasarow said, adding that he would leave it up to the discretion of Liddell’s probation officer.
Lasarow also gave Liddell a stay for the holidays. She was ordered to report to the county jail by 5 p.m. on Jan. 23, to start her remaining 128 days. Liddell was given credit for the 237 days she was in jail after her arrest.
Back to Front Page
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Tickets are available for the Kiwanis Club of Tahoe Sierra’s 20th anniversary celebration raffle this week.