ELLSWORTH - Michaela Sousa faced stiff headwinds going into her sentencing hearing Tuesday in Pierce County Circuit Court.
The 26-year-old had skipped out of two trials charging her with felony child abuse, the second of which ended in February with a guilty verdict and an empty defendant's chair. The unusual circumstances of her trial marked an apparent flight pattern that included Sousa running from police upon learning she was being arrested in 2016 after her daughter was found with serious head injuries.
But if seas were choppy for Sousa, who was returned to custody in June after being picked up in Minnesota, the one-time River Falls resident sent an anchor crashing through the hull of any vessel for leniency when she spoke at her July 24 sentencing hearing.
During a lengthy speech seeking a probationary sentence, Sousa singled out the two men who have been fostering her child, placed in their care by Pierce County.
Announcing in court that the men are a gay couple, Sousa said she had been attempting to raise the child through a "life of God" and that the men could not provide the parenting direction she could.
Sousa said she feared the child would develop mental disabilities if forced to live without her.
"I'm not meaning to offend anyone," she said. "I'm just being realistic."
That message was received by Buffalo-Pepin County Circuit Court Judge James Duvall, who was one week away from retirement on the day of Sousa's sentencing.
"Incredible, just incredible," the judge responded after Sousa concluded the speech.
Duvall said he took great offense at her remarks, especially about the men fostering her daughter.
"They are more of a parent than you have demonstrated in your life," the judge told her.
After delivering a lengthy admonition - during which he called Sousa's crime one of the worst child abuse cases he'd seen - Duvall sentenced her to eight years in prison and five years on extended supervision.
He made it a point to call out her comments about the foster parents, saying "I'm absolutely appalled with your attitude toward them" and prohibited Sousa from contacting her daughter or the foster parents.
"I want her to grow up not knowing you," Duvall said.
The judge picked apart nearly every element of Sousa’s speech, which centered on her attempt to be placed in the Minnesota Adult-Teen Challenge treatment program in lieu of prison; Pierce County District Attorney Sean Froelich sought to imprison her for up to nine years. Sousa described how she had already been accepted into the faith-based program, saying leaders there were ready to accept her "with open arms."
"Make the call to send me to further testing and save my life and my daughter's future," she told Duvall. "I'm begging you to please not give up on me."
The judge said he was familiar with the Teen Challenge program and that he'd once sent a meth user to it. It's a tough program, "but for you, I think it's totally inappropriate," given her track record of fleeing responsibility, Duvall said.
He also pounced on Sousa's repeated claims that the child - discovered to be in severe distress by a nurse who initially noticed the injuries during an appointment for Sousa's care - had made a full recovery.
That couldn't be further from the truth, Duvall said.
He said doctors at the trial testified that the girl sustained injuries that will impact her for the rest of her life. Though, Duvall told Sousa, that testimony might have occurred on the day she didn't show up for court.
"She has not and she will not" make a full recovery, he said.
The judge questioned how Sousa spent a portion of her speech sentimentally recalling childbirth and the overwhelming feeling of making her first eye contact with the baby she was later convicted of abusing.
"Those eyes are the ones that were a victim of abuse," Duvall said, describing how the child's head became swollen and misshapen from trauma. "That child was obviously and seriously abused."
He went on to tell Sousa that her version of events suggests she is "living in a dream world" that he said was indicative of the seven middle names the child was given, which largely represent concepts of peace and serenity.
"That child had none of that with you," Duvall said.
Before concluding the sentence, the judge made reference to a song lyric Sousa quoted in her speech. Though she didn't cite the artist, Duvall did in his final remarks.
"If Ed Sheeran beat his kids up like this, I'd feel the same way," he said.