Whitney Johnson, the mother of a 1-year-old baby found buried last summer in a hidden grave, entered an Alford plea on Monday to first degree felony involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
An Alford plea does not admit the criminal act and asserts innocence, but admits that the evidence would likely persuade a judge or jury to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Johnson’s plea follows an identical plea entered Friday by Nathan Ritze, her boyfriend. Ritze entered an Alford plea on Friday to a first-degree felony charge of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Emily Hall, the child’s paternal aunt who addressed Ritze on Friday, also addressed Johnson before the court imposed the sentence.
Hall spoke of how Johnson at one point was loved and part of the family, but added, “We’ll never understand what happened.”
Hall reiterated to Johnson what she told Ritz on Friday, that the death of the child was a product of evil, and on Monday, Hall said Johnson was part of that evil.
Hall went on to say that she hoped Johnson was sorry, and that she hoped she found peace.
“We will continue to pray for you,” Hall said, “and work toward forgiving you.”
“We are never going to know what happened,” defense attorney Bill Armintrout said, adding that the case has been “troubling.”
He said he has gotten to know Johnson and told the court that he didn’t believe she was responsible for the death of her son. He said he wanted the court to be aware “she is a good person.”
Armintrout also told the court that he had an opportunity to argue for a lesser sentence, but Johnson was satisfied to accept the seven-year term.
Johnson told the court that she apologized to everyone who had been affected by the case. She won’t be able to share her side of the story, she said, but added, “I do have peace for myself.”
Judge Rocky Coss said it’s been a “tough case,” and though he doesn’t know all the evidence, it’s obvious a child died.
The judge told Johnson that while there may have been questions as to how and why the child died, there was “no question that your son died under your care.”
Coss referred to Ritze’s sentence and noted that Johnson has no prior record. He followed the plea agreement recommendation and sentenced the defendant to seven years in prison.
Johnson will also face five years of post-release control supervision following the completion of her prison term.
In an August indictment, Johnson and Ritze were charged with murder, involuntary manslaughter, child endangerment, tampering with evidence, and abuse of a corpse.
Johnson and Ritze, both formerly of Hillsboro, were arrested in Richmond, Ky. following the May 31 discovery of the body of Garin Niehaus buried in a wooded area off Diven Road, just outside Hillsboro. Authorities found the 1-year-old’s remains after Hillsboro police received a tip expressing concern about the child’s whereabouts.
The pair eventually told authorities they had found the child unresponsive and buried him in the early morning hours of Dec. 19, 2012.
In a recent court hearing, it was revealed that the coroner’s finding listed the manner of death as homicide.