Update 5:30 p.m.: A jury on Friday sentenced Katie Ripstra to two 20-year sentences, which will run concurrently.
For jurors to find Katie Alice Ripstra guilty of child abuse, defense attorney Casey Garrett said in her closing argument, they would have to believe that Ripstra was drawing blood from her three-year-old “like a vampire” and flushing it down the toilet. That she was intentionally putting salt and bacteria from farm animals and poop into her daughter’s feeding IV to cause sodium spikes and infections. That she gave her some kind of narcotic in order to manipulate early lab tests that showed the girl had a bad stomach.
Garrett argued that for Ripstra to be convicted, she would have to have been savvy enough to dupe doctors into believing her daughter couldn't eat without throwing up for four years, and therefore needed a variety of feeding tubes and IVs instead. "You would have to believe they were complete buffoons for this to make sense," she argued.
The jury was not swayed. After almost five hours of deliberation, all 12 jurors found Ripstra guilty of both counts of intentionally, knowingly causing bodily injury to a child through salt poisoning and inserting a catheter into her daughter’s vein. One family member exited the court room wailing, and could be heard banging on the wall in the witness room. In Ripstra's sentencing hearing today, her defense team will argue for probation. She faces up to life in prison.
The state claimed Ripstra perpetuated medical abuse and constantly falsified her daughter's symptoms to doctors because of the satisfying “ping” of Facebook notifications—constant streams of comments and “likes” from concerned, sympathetic mothers who gave Ripstra affirmation and support whenever her daughter was hospitalized. Because Ripstra was a pediatric nurse at Texas Children’s Hospital—the very place she brought her daughter 26 times in less than two years—prosecutors argued this would make her highly capable of medical child abuse.
"Doctors looked for every possible explanation until there were none," state prosecutor Tiffany Dupree said in her closing argument. "They didn't want to believe it was medical child abuse. That's why it went on so long."
But what the state didn't have was a smoking gun—all of the evidence was circumstantial.
While the state's kidney specialist was certain that the girl's near-fatal sodium spike in August 2013 was salt poisoning, the defense's kidney specialist, from Stanford University, testified he was certain it was instead caused by severe dehydration. To explain the incessant vomiting and diarrhea Ripstra reported to doctors, the defense claimed the girl may have suffered from a rare, incurable illness called mitochondrial disease, which affects how the body makes energy and often causes gastrointestinal problems. Even though seven genetic tests came back negative for the disease, defense attorneys brought in an international expert who testified that the girl's symptoms were highly consistent with it, and that her doctors simply didn't do enough tests. As a result, the defense claimed that doctors mismanaged her care and wrongly concluded the girl had been abused.
Still, the defense couldn't explain why the girl recovered so quickly once authorities removed her from her mother following a near-fatal sodium spike (other than to say that it's possible she recovered from the mysterious illness, which tests showed she didn't have, on her own once doctors stopped treating her). Within a month of the separation, Ripstra’s daughter, after spending 248 days total in the hospital and getting her nutrition through tubes and IVs, was completely healthy. According to her caretakers since then, she eats—a lot. She hasn't been hospitalized since she was separated from Ripstra.
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"When Katie Ripstra walked out that door," Dupree said, "so did her (the girl's) symptoms."
The woman who plans to adopt the now-six-year-old testified in court the day before Ripstra was convicted. She showed a picture of her new daughter eating a huge plate of waffles that she didn’t throw up, and explained how healthy and happy the girl has been since she came into the family six months ago. Defense attorney Matt Alford asked her what kind of relationship they had, and she said, “I’m her mom.”
Alford snapped back and objected, making the woman admit that if Katie Ripstra went to prison, she would have a much easier time adopting Ripstra's daughter.
After securing the conviction, prosecutor Dupree embraced the woman, who was nearly in tears.