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A Billings woman was sentenced to the maximum possible prison term Tuesday for her role in the years of abuse that her stepson suffered.

Julie Rennie Mitchell, 41, was sentenced in Yellowstone County District Court on four felonies to 40 years in the Montana Women’s Prison, with a 15-year parole restriction. She and her husband, Cornelius Mitchell, have been in jail for more than a year as the criminal charges against them have proceeded. Foster parents for the abused child testified the boy is now healthy, growing and making friends.

At issue in the hearing was whether Julie Mitchell was a bystander who failed to intervene or an active participant in the roughly two and a half years of physical abuse inflicted on the child while he lived with the her and her husband, the child’s biological father.

That abuse included starvation, broken ribs, a broken wrist and hundreds of other burns and lacerations, state witnesses testified.

The defense testified that Julie Mitchell did participate in some of the abuse but was more often a bystander, afraid of her husband, whom defense attorney Ashley Harada called “a monster.” Cornelius Mitchell would hurt both his wife and son when his wife tried to intervene in the child abuse, Harada said.

But the state called witnesses who said the physical abuse of the child continued even when Cornelius Mitchell was not home. They also testified that the child expressed fear of Julie Mitchell, and that Julie Mitchell gave inaccurate accounts of the child’s medical circumstances, including that his abnormal interactions with doctors were because he had autism.

Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Victoria Callender displayed photos of the child before and after the abuse.

“This is photo taken by law enforcement in May of 2017,” she said. "And this child’s eye and the body and the scarring, which included cigarette burns on his back, were reported by the defendant as being self-inflicted, self-harm, because he was autistic.”

Before handing down the sentence, Judge Mary Jane Knisely said Julie Mitchell had played more than “a passive standby” role in the abuse, and that putting her in prison was necessary to protect society.

The 40-year term and 15-year parole restriction was what Callender had recommended. Harada had sought 30 years in prison, with 20 suspended.

The child was relatively healthy during the first three and a half years of his life while living with his biological mother, Callender said. But his abuse began after his mother dropped him off with the Mitchells — whether to stay permanently or short-term, Callender didn’t know, she said.

The abuse case was among the “most chronic” seen by Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Corbit Harrington, he testified, due to the severity of the injuries and their near-daily frequency. Harrington served as the prosecutor on the civil proceedings related to the Mitchells’ custody.

The abuse culminated when Cornelius Mitchell took the child to St. Vincent Healthcare because he was having seizures, Harrington said. The local hospital then flew the child to Salt Lake City for more extensive treatment. State authorities began investigating and removed the child from the Mitchells’ custody. He has been with a foster family for roughly a year.

Guardian ad litem Juli Pierce said it was the "most significant" child abuse case she'd seen. She said she could not understand the boy's speech a year ago when she met him, but that she now understands his speech. She also said the boy expressed fear of Julie Mitchell. 

The boy's foster family attended the sentencing hearing and both parents spoke. 

Foster mother Rhonda King, a first-grade teacher, said the boy had significant developmental delays when he moved in with them, but has since begun interacting more, showing affection to his foster family members and gaining weight. He plays soccer and basketball, and he has made friends, she said. 

“He’s a totally different child from the child who came to us in May” of 2017, King said.

King said the boy still speaks of his abuse, however. 

Laura Driscoll, the Department of Corrections employee who wrote the pre-sentence investigation report for the case, testified that Harada had taken an active role in Driscoll’s interview of the defendant, at times answering questions that Driscoll asked before Julie Mitchell was able to. Driscoll said that meant the answers were unreliable. Julie Mitchell had requested her attorney be present for the interview.

Harada called William Woolston, a clinical psychologist, who said it was “moderately probable” Julie Mitchell had bipolar disorder, based on a self-reported inventory, and that she had risk factors, including her history as a victim of domestic violence.

Julie Mitchell also had a personality disorder that caused her to focus on pleasing others, especially those on whom she depended, and to fear offending those individuals or being abandoned by them, Woolston said.

Julie Mitchell was charged with seven felonies related to the abuse. She pleaded guilty to four of them, and the state dismissed the remaining three at sentencing.

Cornelius Mitchell is set for trial on his charges.

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