No jail time in Benton City baby's bathtub death

By Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldJune 14, 2013 

A Benton City woman who pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter in the bathtub death of her 1-year-old daughter will not serve any jail time.

Superior Court Judge Robert Swisher sentenced Wendi Finkbeiner-Setzer, 39, on Friday to a year of community supervision, unless she fails to follow the rules of her probation.

Finkbeiner-Setzer apologized for leaving toddler Piper K. Finkbeiner -- as well as then-2-year-old daughter Auna -- in the bathtub of her home on Nov. 5, 2012.

"I know what I did and I am completely responsible," she said. "The thoughtlessness my actions have caused, have hurt so many people, it reaches beyond what I can even comprehend. I want to continue to give back ... The people who have argued with me about not going to trial, or that these charges were even brought, the truth is if nothing was done, it wouldn't have felt right either."

Court documents show Finkbeiner-Setzer was working on a computer while water overflowed in the bathtub, soaking throw rugs in the bathroom and carpet under the door. She told Benton County sheriff's deputies the children were not alone more than five minutes.

The small Benton County courtroom was filled Friday with about 30 of Finkbeiner-Setzer's family members and supporters. Many made emotional statements on her behalf.

"My wife's a good person and a good wife," Kris Finkbeiner said. "She's always been a good mother."

Deputy Prosecutor Terry Bloor told the judge that while Finkbeiner-Setzer shouldn't be sent to state prison, where people sentenced to more than a year behind bars go, she still should spend time in county jail. He also praised Finkbeiner-Setzer for her honesty.

"It seems like other people might have been minimizing what her actions were, and she gets up and doesn't minimize it at all," Bloor said. "I do not believe that she is a criminal, but I do believe that this is an act that is criminal."

After the sentencing, Finkbeiner-Setzer told the Herald that it was a "blessing" to have Piper with her for a year. She would like to speak to parenting classes about her experience.

"I miss her, but I hope her story gets out," she said.

Finkbeiner-Setzer said there has been some healing in recent weeks after the other daughter, Auna, now 3, returned home. She had been in the care of a court-appointed guardian.

"She was so very excited she got to come home, she screamed at the top of her lungs," Finkbeiner-Setzer said. "Every day now, she tells me and Kris that she's so excited that she gets to stay at home tonight."

While Auna is home, Finkbeiner-Setzer's lawyer, Larry Stephenson, told the judge that her teenage son, Kale Setzer -- who discovered that Piper had drowned -- remains out of the house.

Stephenson also recalled how Finkbeiner-Setzer had to make the decision to take her daughter off life support Nov. 12 after doctors at Seattle Children's Hospital, where the child had been airlifted, determined that she had very low brain function and "would not be a child anymore" if kept alive.

"My god, that's beyond my ability to really deal with," Stephenson said.

The family donated Piper's organs, and Finkbeiner-Setzer said a California woman on dialysis received a kidney.

Swisher appeared moved by the statements when he delivered the sentence.

"This court deals with tragedy on a daily basis, tragedy in our lives, and this is at the top of the list," he said. "Ms. Finkbeiner is going to suffer for the rest of her life. It's a cold hard fact."

Bloor said the judge did his best to come up with the appropriate sentence in the case.

"Sometimes he follows our recommendation and sometimes he doesn't," Bloor said. "But I certainly think he made a heartfelt decision to do what he felt was best for the defendant and her family."

After the hearing, Stephenson said the case was the most emotional he has handled.

"I say all of us who are parents have made mistakes of one variety or another that could result in a serious injury or death of a child because of our temporary negligence," he said. "It's just the reality of things, that alone is what set this case apart."

Stephenson said it was Finkbeiner-Setzer's idea to plead guilty instead of going to trial.

"She's the one who insisted on pleading guilty, contrary to my numerous attempts to get her to consider taking this to trial. She would not budge," he said. "In fact I apologized to her because it was, in fact, the right decision."

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