A Little Rock Air Force Base airman admitted in Pulaski County court Monday that she knew her husband had been beating her 2-year-old son for months before the toddler died at the hands of his stepfather - her husband - in 2007.
Initially, Senior Airman Sharilyn Cotton Lopez had pleaded innocent to the Class B felony of permitting child abuse, claiming her son Jaden had fallen out of bed. But on Monday, two weeks before her trial was to start in Pulaski County Circuit Court, she accepted an offer from prosecutors that will keep her out of jail and could save her Air Force career.
The Class B felony carries a maximum 20-year sentence.
Under the plea agreement, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Barry Sims sentenced the 28-year-old to five years' probation with a $1,000 fine and ordered her to undergo both anger-management and parenting classes
"No second chances," Sims sternly told Lopez as she stood before him in civilian clothes. "If you come in here and you plead guilty [to violating probation] or if I find you guilty, I'm going to send you to the pen for as long as I can."
The boy's condition was called to the attention of authorities Aug. 14, 2007, when Lopez returned home from work and found the toddler unconscious and bruised, lying on the bedroom floor of their home on Little Rock Air Force Base. Doctors documented 2-month-old injuries on the boy, the prosecutor told the judge.
Jaden Cotton died Aug. 16, 2007
, within days of arriving at Arkansas Children's Hospital with broken bones and massive head injuries suffered when Ausencio Lopez shook him and flung him against a wall for being difficult during a diaper change
, according to police reports.
Ausencio Lopez slit his wrists and jumped off an I-630 overpass near the hospital the day Jaden died
He initially survived the suicide attempt but died two months later during surgery on his injuries - shortly after being arraigned on a capital-murder charge as he lay in his hospital bed. While in the hospital, he also confessed to regularly beating the boy
Sharilyn Lopez knew that her husband had been abusing Jaden, deputy prosecutor Terry Ball told the judge.
"She had a duty to protect her son, and she didn't," Ball said.
Ball told the judge that prosecutors offered probation after a key prosecution witness, Sharilyn Lopez' father, Roger Cotton of Vermont, recanted a claim he made to police saying that his daughter had told him she was concerned about how rough her husband disciplined the boy. Cotton also provided police with a photo of the child showing a large bruise on his forehead, she said.
Her conviction on the felony is not an automatic end to her career as an Air Force driver and dispatcher for Little Rock Air Force Base's 19th Airlift Wing Logistics Readiness Squadron.
"Nothing is automatic," said Tech. Sgt. Kati Garcia, base spokesman. "Every situation is looked at case by case."
According to Air Force Instruction 36-3208, airmen may be discharged for misconduct based on conviction in a civilian court "when either a punitive discharge would be authorized for the same or a closely related offense under the Manual for Courts Martial [the criminal code used in military courts] or the sentence by civilian authorities includes confinement for six months or more without regard to suspension or probation."
Lopez' conviction does not include confinement unless she violates the terms of her probation. It will be up to Lopez' commander and the 19th Airlift Wing legal office to determine if her civilian criminal offense is also in violation of military law.
Her commander can request she not be discharged even if the charge warranted it.
Lopez has continued to serve in her job at the base since being charged a week after her son died. She was released shortly after her arrest upon posting $200,000 bond and agreeing to wear an ankle-monitoring device.
Lopez gave birth to her husband's child around the time of Jaden's death. She became pregnant with her third child in March 2008 while she was on bail and still being electronically monitored. The baby was born a few months ago. The father is not known
Both children had been removed from Lopez' care by the Arkansas Department of Human Services, but the infant recently was returned to her custody, prosecutors said Monday. The status of the older child - 2-year-old Jacob Ethan Cotton Lopez, who was fathered by Ausencio Lopez - is not known.