RACINE — A Racine woman accused of scalding her ex-girlfriend’s toddler in bathwater was sentenced Friday to seven years’ incarceration, minus time served.
Tierra L. Lee spoke briefly and softly, expressing her apologizes for the child’s injuries: “She wasn’t meant to get hurt.”
On Aug. 31, Lee, 27, accepted a plea deal, pleading no contest to amended charges of felony physical abuse of a child, recklessly causing bodily harm. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years’ incarceration and 5 years extended supervision, and/or a $50,000 fine.
In exchange for Lee’s plea, a charge of child neglect resulting in bodily harm, as well as charges of theft of movable property from a person, battery and disorderly conduct from a separate case were dismissed, but considered for sentencing purposes.
Racine County Circuit Court Judge Emily Mueller sentenced Lee to serve seven years incarceration and five years extended supervision, giving her credit for time served for the 860 days she has already served.
“This is a situation in which, to a great extent, the system has failed Ms. Lee, and that’s one of the primarily reasons we are here,” said Mueller. “But the crime you committed, Ms. Lee, I believe mandates that the counseling you need be, at least initially, in the prison system.”
In May 2016, Racine police were called to a home in the 900 block of LaSalle Street after a concerned citizen said Lee had dunked her girlfriend’s 2½-year-old toddler in scalding water, according to a criminal complaint.
Police responded and found Lee’s mother caring for the child, who had severely burned legs and feet and was bleeding.
The child was transported to Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa, where doctors determined the child had first- and second-degree burns consistent with being immersed or dipped into hot liquid.
Lee told police the burns occurred days before while she was giving the child a bath. She said she had left the room to get a towel and heard the child screaming.
She said she saw the burns and called Wheaton Franciscan-All Saints hospital for advice, but then left for Chicago and put the child in the care of her grandmother.
Her mother reportedly called Lee on May 5 to tell her the burns had gotten worse, but Lee remained in Illinois until police called her from the hospital May 7.
“This child had such severe burns that this was not simply an accident,” said Assistant District Attorney Antoinette Rich. “She would have blistered almost immediately. Her skin would have immediately begun to peel off.”
Rich said that although the child has since been placed in foster care, and is in a two-parent household and doing well physically, the child has issues.
Rich recommended that Lee serve seven to eight years’ incarceration, followed by five years of extended supervision.
“There is no doubt when I read this pre-sentence report that Tierra Lee had an absolutely horrible upbringing,” Rich said. “I don’t in any way think that is an excuse, though, for what happened here.”
Past trauma discussed
Lee’s attorney, Eugene Detert, said that despite his many years in practice, Lee’s difficult upbringing — including abuse, mental health issues, abandonment and repeated sexual assault — was shocking even to him, and definitely left a lasting impact on his client.
“I would hope that you would consider a lesser prison sentence than what is being recommended by the state. I think that in light of this period of incarceration, she has done a lot of soul-searching, maturing and improving herself,” Detert said.
He pointed to the progress that Lee has made in jail, noting the classes and Bible study she has been attending.
“I see compassion in her,” said Nancy Ziejert, who has been participating in a Bible study in the jail with her mother, Ann Fooks, for the past five years. “Whenever we talk about children, there is a change in her. There is compassion in her.”
“I do see that growth in her (Lee). It’s amazing,” said Fooks. “It isn’t fake. It’s the real thing.”
Shavon Lee, Tierra Lee’s sister, also testified on her sister’s behalf via telephone: “I believe everyone deserves a second chance,” she said.
Shortly before the sentencing, Mueller agreed that Lee’s sentencing is difficult for all involved parties. “I don’t know that I’ve seen a case that carries with it the combination of this kind of horrible for both the victim and for the defendant,” Mueller said.
“I hope she gets assistance in the prison system,” Detert said, after the sentence was delivered.
“This is a situation in which, to a great extent, the system has failed Ms. Lee, and that’s one of the primarily reasons we are here. But the crime you committed, Ms. Lee, I believe mandates that the counseling you need be, at least initially, in the prison system.” Emily Mueller, Racine County Circuit Court Judge