Crime

Former Richland nanny sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison

Tawney Johnson, mother of toddler Ryer Morrison, is helped back to her seat by Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller Thursday at the Benton County Courthouse during the sentencing of Kelli A. Jacobsen. Jacobsen was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for the 2011 death of Morrison. See a video at www.tricityherald.com.
Tawney Johnson, mother of toddler Ryer Morrison, is helped back to her seat by Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller Thursday at the Benton County Courthouse during the sentencing of Kelli A. Jacobsen. Jacobsen was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for the 2011 death of Morrison. See a video at www.tricityherald.com. Tri-City Herald

Ryder Morrison had an infectious smile, a growl of a belly laugh and a lot of love.

But on Day 366 of the Richland boy’s life — just one day after blowing out his first birthday candle — he died on an operating table from abusive head trauma.

Tawney Johnson will forever regret trusting her toddler to the care of a nanny, and not firing Kelli A. Jacobsen over concerns her boy might be too much to handle, she said.

On Thursday, Johnson and her parents said the time had come to get justice for Ryder.

After spending more than four years questioning what they could have done differently, hoping for answers and attending hearings, the family of Ryder begged the court to send Jacobsen to prison.

Judge Vic VanderSchoor ordered the Jacobsen, 31, of Richland, to serve a 4 1/2-year sentence.

The judge, who presided over Jacobsen’s two trials, said it is “truly a tragedy for everyone involved.”

At least 100 people packed the courtroom for the emotional hearing. The majority were there for the Johnson and Morrison families, with about two dozen in support of Jacobsen.

VanderSchoor denied a defense request to allow Jacobsen to remain free while she appeals her second-degree manslaughter conviction out of Benton County Superior Court.

“I think the sentence should begin today,” he said, leading to cries of “Amen” and loud claps from the courtroom gallery.

Jacobsen stands firm in her innocence.

She was the live-in nanny for Ryder when the toddler lost consciousness on June 22, 2011, and was rushed to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland. He died 1 1/2 hours later.

Jacobsen said Ryder may have injured himself falling from a push toy. Her attorney, Shane Silverthorn, suggested the boy’s brain hemorrhage may have been the result of abuse by another person in the 24 hours leading up to his death.

“Your honor, I did not do this. I wish I knew what happened to Ryder, but I did not do this,” a sobbing Jacobsen told the court. “I loved him like my own child. I even grieve for their family because they lost a child.”

“It’s been a long, hard four years, and my family has grieved as well,” she added. “But the biggest thing is I did not do this. That’s the thing that I just want known is I did not do this.”

In Jacobsen’s first trial in 2013, a jury could not reach a unanimous verdict and a mistrial was declared.

The jury in her second trial in July acquitted Jacobsen of first-degree manslaughter and opted for the lesser charge of second-degree. The guilty verdict included two aggravating circumstances, which allowed prosecutors to ask for time above the standard range of one year and nine months to two years and three months.

Prosecutor Andy Miller asked for triple the maximum range, at six years and nine months, “based on the sad facts of the case.” He cited three cases in telling the court he believes the exceptional sentence will be upheld by the state Court of Appeals.

Silverthorn submitted dozens of letters of support for Jacobsen before the hearing. He noted that she was convicted of negligent homicide, not intentional or reckless, and said she “firmly believes she did not cause the death of Ryder Morrison.”

Silverthorn asked for a sentence within the range, citing Jacobsen’s lack of felony history and her honest emotions. He said Jacobsen is caring, loving, respectful and kind to other people, and “is not defined by one moment in time.”

“Ryder’s family has gone through terrible pain,” the defense lawyer said. “There’s also nothing we can do to bring Ryder back. No sentence, no matter how long, is going to fix that pain.”

VanderSchoor said a sentence two times above the top of the range is warranted because the jury found Ryder was vulnerable given his young age and that his death had a destructive and foreseeable impact on others.

Grandmother Carey Gavaert still thinks about what Christmas and birthday gifts she should be buying Ryder, but instead is left leaving flowers, balloons and trinkets at his graveside, she said. The the only thing she has left of her grandson is his ashes in a necklace.

“I never got to hear him say, ‘I love you, grandma.’ Kelli killed him. She took all of that away and changed our family forever, but today Ryder will have his justice,” Gavaert said. “Kelli going to jail today matters, justice for our family matters, and Ryder’s life definitely mattered.”

Derek Johnson said that sparkle in his daughter is gone ever since the death of his grandson. He misses Ryder every day of his life, feels that he failed his “little man” by not protecting him, and is left wondering who the boy could have been if given the chance to grow up.

“Forgiveness is important to me, and while I do forgive this person, Kelli, Kelli,” Johnson said until Jacobsen faced him, “I forgive you.”

“Cause I do not want to be bogged down with hate, revenge, I also want to be firm in my statement that this person acted in the most cowardly way by killing a defenseless child,” he added. “My grandson could not say ‘Please stop, you’re hurting me,’ just because she was stressed, angry or jealous, or whatever feeling she was feeling.”

Tawney Johnson hardly remembers the first year after Ryder’s death, she said. She would sleep in his crib, put a doll in there hoping it would miraculously be her son, started “drinking to numb the pain” and had to be heavily medicated to deal with the trauma.

Johnson said her parents were terrified about walking into the house and finding her dead.

“Ryder was all I thought I had to live for because, if you can die of a broken heart, I would have been dead a long time ago,” Johnson said.

“You’ve continued to live day-to-day life as if Ryder meant nothing to you,” she said, questioning how Jacobsen could post “God is good” on Facebook after the death. “You placed the blame on me and other people for your actions. I question myself every day, ‘How the hell didn’t I see it?’ but you elaborated about every bruise and constantly had a coverup.”

Nick Jacobsen said his younger sister would never harm or neglect a child, and now because of the events four years ago never wants to care for children ever again.

“Though we wish we could reconstruct the events of that horrible day that affected so many lives, it’s just not possible,” he told the court. “I’m not here to proclaim innocence for my sister, though she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, the victim of possibly bad timing. No one person will ever truly know what happened to Ryder Morrison.”

As Kelli Jacobsen was later led out of the courtroom by corrections officers, she turned and blew a kiss to her family. Her loved ones told her, “Love you, Kelli” and “Stay strong,” while someone from the other side of the room shouted, “Go to hell.”

Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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