SEATTLE (Reuters) - A couple accused of starving their adopted 13-year-old Ethiopian-born daughter and locking her outside in the cold, where she died from exposure, pleaded not guilty on Thursday to homicide and child abuse charges.
Although investigators found the Washington state couple adhered to a harsh child-rearing regimen prescribed by a controversial Christian parenting book, the prosecutor said Thursday that religion was not relevant to the criminal case.
Larry and Carri Williams, of Sedro-Woolley — a town about halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia — were arrested September 29, more than four months after their daughter, Hana, died of hypothermia in their backyard.
A Skagit County Superior Court judge reduced their bail from $500,000 to $150,000 each on Thursday, and barred them from contact with their eight remaining children, who were placed into foster care in July, or with each other.
Each is charged with homicide by abuse in connection with their daughter’s death, and first-degree assault of a child stemming from mistreatment of her adopted 10-year-old brother from Ethiopia.
If convicted each faces a prison term of between 20 and 29 years, according to state sentencing guidelines.
Hana Williams, adopted from Ethiopia by the couple in 2008, died on May 12 after she was found unconscious outside shortly after midnight, in temperatures hovering around 40 degrees, authorities said.
Investigators say the abuse she endured included beatings, starvation, being forced to sleep outside and use an outdoor toilet, and that she had lost a significant amount of weight since her adoption. Prosecutors said the 10-year-old brother was similarly mistreated.
The parents kept the family isolated from non-relatives, home-schooled the children and followed strict religious principles described in the Christian parenting book titled “How to Train Up a Child,” investigators said.
According to court documents, their 16-year-old son told investigators that Hana “was kept in a locked closet and the only light switch was on the outside of the closet. He stated that his mother would take her out every other day to walk and exercise. They played the Bible on tape and Christian music for her while she was locked in the closet.”
But Prosecutor Rich Weyrich insisted that issues of faith were not a factor in the case against the couple. “Religion’s not an element we have to probe. We have to prove that the children were assaulted, tortured and died,” he told Reuters on Thurday.
Larry Williams, 47, who works for Boeing, and his wife, Carri, 40, a stay-at-home mother, were being held in Skagit County Jail.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune