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Guilty of child abuse, woman is pregnant again — and in jail

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By John Barnhart

    Back in March, a Bedford County jury sentenced Cecelia Burnette to eight years in prison after convicting her of felony child abuse, on March 17, in the death of her infant daughter, Marissa. Last week, she was back in Bedford County Circuit Court for formal sentencing.

    And she’s pregnant, with a new child on the way.
    Burnette’s defense team of David Oblon and Hilary Griffith put Burnette’s mother on the stand in an effort to persuade Judge James Updike to impose a different sentence.
    “She is the only child I have,” said Robin Lambert, Burnette’s mother.
    Lambert said that Burnette had a medically difficult childhood, beginning with cancer that resulted in the loss of one kidney, followed some months later by major intestinal surgery.
    According to Lambert, Burnette later had a severe head injury in high school. Lambert said that her daughter was taking summer school classes and she and two other girls were seated on the back of a Neon during a break. The driver of the Neon took off, throwing the girls to the ground and Burnette hit her head on the pavement. She returned to class, passed out and ended up spending three days in an intensive care unit in Lynchburg.
    “She still has not fully recovered from it,” Lambert said.
    According to Lam  bert, Burnette still does not respond normally to verbal information. She said that if asked a question, her daughter must be asked one question at a time, and takes a while to respond. She also had academic problems in high school after the injury.
    “I think she has poor judgement, right now, in making poor decisions because of the head injury,” Lambert said.    
    Under cross examination by Michael Doucette, the special prosecutor brought in for the case from Lynchburg, Lambert testified that Burnette did complete a nursing program and later got jobs as a nursing assistant, doing well on these jobs. She also testified that Burnette was active in school.
    “What is the worth of a baby?” asked Doucette, urging Judge Updike to consider the victim impact statements in the case.
    Doucette asked the judge to uphold the jury verdict, noting that they had heard all the evidence in the case and found Burnette guilty.
    “They fashioned what they considered an appropriate measure of accountability,” Doucette said of the jury sentence.
    “My client has maintained repeatedly that she didn’t injure the baby,” Oblon said to Judge Updike.
    Oblon said that the sentencing guidelines call for one day to six months incarceration and argued that the jury had no chance to consider other alternatives to prison.
    “She’s a troubled young woman, but she is not an evil young woman,” he said.
    Oblon asked Judge Updike to suspend a major portion of the jury sentence.
    “I ask you to consider mercy in this case,” he said.
    Judge Updike upheld the jury decision, sentencing Burnette to eight years in prison and a $75,000 fine.
    “You have the right to appeal the decision of this court,” he told her.
    Oblon plans to file a motion to have the jury verdict set aside. A hearing on this motion is scheduled for 9 a.m. on June 8. He also asked the judge to allow Burnette to remain free on bond pending this hearing.
    Judge Updike, however, noted that 60 days had already passed since Burnette was convicted. He revoked bond and remanded her into custody.
    “We believe the evidence was insufficient,” commented Oblon, after the trial, explaining why he plans to ask that the verdict be set aside.
    Burnette is pregnant and is due to deliver in October. While Oblon had asked that she remain free on bond pending his motion to set aside the jury verdict, he did not ask that she remain free until the baby is delivered. He said that the jail is able to provide prenatal care for a pregnant inmate.
    Oblon denied that Burnette’s pregnancy was a ploy to stay out of jail.
    “It was a point of life,  he said.
    Burnette’s mother testified during the hearing that she plans to seek custody of Burnette’s child.
    Mary Beth Sumner is satisfied with the sentence. Sumner is Adam Davis’ sister. Davis is Marissa’s biological father and had been in a battle with Burnette for custody of the baby. At the time of Marissa’s death the two were alternating custody of the infant with Burnette having her for seven days, and then Davis having her for seven days. Sumner helped her brother by helping him care for his daughter during the days when he had custody.    
    “I became very attached to her,” she said.
    Sumner believes justice has been served.
    “She [Burnette] is where she belongs, behind bars,” said Sumner.
    Sumner believes that Burnette’s current pregnancy was just a ploy to avoid going to jail.
    Doucette is pleased that Judge Updike upheld the jury’s sentence. He said that no new evidence had been presented that would change that.
    He explained the reasoning behind his cross examination of Lambert. Doucette said that Lambert had attempted to portray her daughter as being frail, but he wanted to show that Burnette had actually been physically active in high school and in recent years. He also wanted to show that she had been held professional jobs.