A Billings man wasn’t faultless in his son’s protracted physical abuse, but he also wasn’t the “monster” his wife and co-defendant made him out to be, a prosecutor said Friday.
Cornelius Mitchell, 51, was charged alongside his wife, Julie Mitchell, for physical abuse to their son that spanned three years and included broken bones, burns and lacerations.
When Cornelius Mitchell took the boy to the hospital one night in 2017 for seizures, he was then transferred out of state for care and a criminal investigation began.
Yellowstone County District Court Judge Donald Harris called the abuse “horrific,” and “difficult to comprehend, actually.”
But while Julie Mitchell received the maximum penalty in October for her role in the abuse, and was given a 15-year parole restriction on her 40-year sentence, prosecutors saw Cornelius’ case differently.
“The state believes that the co-defendant Julie Mitchell was really and truly the monster,” said Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Victoria Callender.
Julie Mitchell lied to Cornelius, medical staff, child protection workers, neighbors, and to her sentencing judge, the prosecutor said.
The prosecution and defense jointly recommended a 20-year prison term with 10 years suspended.
Judge Harris followed it, he said, for three reasons: Cornelius Mitchell saved his son’s life by bringing him to the hospital, the boy’s foster family supported the recommendation, and the same prosecutor handled both of the Mitchells’ cases and was positioned to assess the differences between Cornelius and Julie.
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In an unusual move, Callender arranged with Mitchell’s defense attorney to speak with Mitchell at the jail. Over three and a half hours, Mitchell answered Callender’s questions with candor.
“He was forthcoming, and I believe with everything in me he was being honest," Callender said. "And that was one of the most unusual occurrences I’ve had in my years as a prosecutor — that the defendant was willing to meet with me on those terms, knowing that I was the prosecutor in the case."
Callender told the judge that Mitchell was gullible and that his wife had manipulated him and was responsible for most of the abuse.
“I will also tell you that in my opinion after meeting with Mr. Mitchell, he loves this child," Callender said. "Again, I say he failed him miserably, but he loves his son. And I have told Mr. Mitchell that in the darkest moments of his life when he is beating himself up over this, he has to remember one significant thing: On Feb. 20 of 2017, this defendant took that child to St. Vincent hospital, and if he had not done that, that little boy would not be alive today.”
Defense attorney Edward Werner added that Mitchell was "very trusting" and had “never been what I would call an arrogant client."
The boy’s foster mother, Rhonda King, testified that the boy still slams doors, lashes out and enters “fight or flight” mode too easily, but that he has made strides in speech therapy, has a growing circle of friends and enjoys normal kid activities.
She also told Mitchell she loved the boy and was committed to giving him a good life, while foster father Bret King shook Mitchell’s hand after the hearing. The Kings are pursuing adoption.
When it was Mitchell’s turn to speak, he stood and said he felt nervous.
“I never meant for this to happen to my son, I love him,” he said, before starting to sob, sitting down and putting his head on the table in front of him.