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Glendive woman sentenced to 20 years after toddler dies in hot car

Glendive woman sentenced to 20 years after toddler dies in hot car

A 21-year-old woman from Glendive was sentenced Monday for negligent homicide after her 2-year-old son died after being left in a hot car in 2018.

Ashley Maria Howard received a 20-year sentence with five years suspended at the Montana Women's Prison on Monday from Cascade County District Court Judge Elizabeth Best. She is not eligible for parole for 10 years.

Howard will get credit for a little more than 2 years she’s already spent behind bars.

The state asked for the maximum sentence of 20 years with none suspended. The defense asked for 15 years suspended.

Howard was found guilty by a jury in Cascade County in August. The trial was moved to Cascade County following significant public attention and outcry in Dawson County.

Prosecutors said that Howard left the boy in her car on June 25, 2018, and well into the following afternoon while she slept after getting drunk at a party the night before.

Howard's boyfriend at the time offered to arrange a ride home for Howard and the boy. She refused, saying she'd sleep at a friend's house for a few hours to sober up. She didn’t wake up until about 1 p.m. on June 26.

Howard drove the boy to the Glendive Medical Center where he was admitted with a temperature of 107 degrees. Heatstroke begins when the body reaches a core temperate of 104 degrees.

At the time she told hospital staff that she found the boy “wrapped in a blanket.” 

He was later flown to a Billings Hospital, where he died two days later.

The cause of death was hyperthermia, caused from overheating.

Children dying from vehicle heatstroke is not uncommon in the U.S. In 2019, 52 children died and to date this year 24 children have died of heatstroke, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The child's father, John Howard, initially alerted Dawson County Sheriff’s to the death, saying he knew of at least three other instances where Ashley Howard had left her child in a car unattended.

In arguments, prosecutor and Dawson County Attorney Brett Irigoin said Howard didn’t take responsibility for her son's death, and blamed a lack of familial support and a stable living situation. 

The boy’s paternal grandmother, Marsha Hopkins, admonished Howard for saying she lacked support, stressing that Hopkins and her husband had often offered to care for the child.

During testimony Hopkins and other family members spoke about the grief of losing the 2-year-old in such a manner.

“I don’t think we will ever have closure,” Hopkins said.

At the time of the boy’s death Howard was 19, stressed Victor Bunitsky, Howard’s defense attorney. Her young age contributed to the poor, impulsive decision to leave the boy in a hot car. 

“Her brain hadn’t fully developed and she made a stupid decision,” he said. 

He also noted that Howard had an alcohol dependency problem at the time of the incident. 

In the past two years, Howard has shown maturity—she’s attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and is taking Bible study courses, Bunitsky said.

"Give her the chance to get on with her life and demonstrate that she has learned from it and she can deal with her addiction problem and deal with the issues of the death of her child," Bunitsky said.

Irigoin said it was “insulting” to excuse the child’s death because of the mother’s young age.

“She left him in that vehicle for 14 hours,” said Irigoin, “Eight of those hours the sun was up.”

During a tearful testimony Howard said she struggled with anxiety, self-esteem and depression and missed her son every day.

She reiterated that she lacked support from her friends and family which "did not excuse my actions but mitigated them." 

"Yes, I agree, my decisions were selfish. I struggle with saying that I killed my son because nobody wants to be the reason their son is no longer here," she said. 

When handing down the sentence Best said she agreed that Howard’s age played a role in the boy’s death and that Howard still showed signs of irresponsibility and narcissism and needed “serious and sustained treatment.”

“All of these effects that you describe on yourself and your family are nothing compared to what happened to this boy,” she told Howard.

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Day General Assignment Reporter

General assignment reporter for The Billings Gazette.

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