Vanessa Clark: Second SIDS Death in a Year Leads to Child Endangerment Conviction

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A Lufkin woman has been convicted of felony child endangerment after an infant died in her bed for the second time in a span of two calendar years.

Yesterday afternoon an Angelina County jury handed down a guilty verdict against Vanessa Clark, 33, for her role in the death of her two-month-old son Tristan on July 9, 2010. She told paramedics on the scene that the baby had died while sleeping in the bed he was sharing with Clark and husband Mark Clark.

She was indicted in connection with Tristan's death in June of 2011, after it came to light that the Clarks had lost a one-month-old son named Christian in 2009 in a nearly identical manner.

According to testimony in Clark's trial, after the demise of the first baby, CPS workers warned Clark in no uncertain terms about the dangers of co-sleeping: Infants can be suffocated accidentally by their parents or in the folds of their bedding and pillows.

Prosecutor Dale Summa told the court that because of that earlier tragedy, the Clarks should have known better than to risk a repeat, and by letting Tristan sleep in their bed, they were placing the boy in imminent danger, thus rising to the legal threshold of child endangerment in Texas criminal law.

Defense attorney John Reeves riposted that CPS did not expressly warn the Clarks against co-sleeping with Tristan under any circumstances but instead coached them on how to do it more safely. Reeves also contended that there is no law against sleeping with your children.

"It may not be illegal to sleep with your child, but it is illegal to put your child in imminent danger," countered Summa, and the jury apparently agreed with Summa's definition of "imminent danger." Clark, the bleach-blond locks and sunny smile of her mugshot now gone, reportedly trembled as the verdict was read.

She could face two years in state jail for the felony conviction, and Summa has said that he plans to try Mark Clark on the same charges soon.

Since elevated levels of hydrocodone and Xanax were found in her blood, and several jars of (legally prescribed) pills were found on her nightstand, Vanessa Clark faces mandatory drug testing while she waits at home for sentencing.

The court is compiling a pre-sentencing report, and there is a lot of grist for that mill in Angelina County records. In addition to several theft and drug convictions, Clark was convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to four years in prison back in 2000, though she was released through shock probation after serving less than a year. She hasn't kept her nose entirely clean since then, but the frequency and magnitude of the arrests on her rap sheet have both dwindled. Since getting out of prison, she's only piled up a couple of hot check busts and a shoplifting case.

Since the verdict hinged on an intriguing definition of "imminent danger," we're thinking we haven't seen the last of this case.

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