Sometimes, The Law Is Not Enough

NB. Any news media links contained herein come with a massive trigger warning for ableism and dehumanization of autistics. I provide them in the context of attempting to be thorough, but I do not endorse any of the content therein. They’re fairly disgusting, to be honest.

NB #2. In the interests of full disclosure, a few edits have been made upon receiving new information.

NB #3. G-d help you if you try to defend Kelli Stapleton on my blog. I mean it. 

Kelli Stapleton was a wife and mother living in Benzie County, Michigan. For some time, she had been blogging about her and her daughter’s lives and her fight to obtain services for Isabelle, called Issy, on her blog, The Status Woe (google it, I refuse to give it any more hits). On it, she went into detail about the treatment Issy was subjected to, ABA (Applied Behavioral Therapy, which is essentially “normalization”) and other Lovaasian therapies being the primary cornerstones of the treatment plan. She also allegedly debated more “creative” therapies – such as buying a shock collar, intended for dogs, to use on her daughter.

On Sept. 3, 2013, Stapleton took her 14-year old nonverbal daughter into the family van. She brought two gas grills and put them in the van, and turned them on. Her alleged intent was to kill herself and her daughter via carbon monoxide poisoning. Both survived, though Issy was hospitalized for a long time afterward with alleged brain damage.

Kelli was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

Today, almost exactly a year to the day after the crime, Kelli pled guilty to first degree child abuse. Not attempted murder, but child abuse. Judge James Batzer will sentence her.

I am an autistic adult, and a licensed attorney. I am originally from Michigan.

This case hits me in a very visceral way.

I am going to try and explain why the legal stuff happened the way it did. Inasmuch as I can read the mind of a prosecutor who thinks that a plea bargain for attempted murder is okay.  Most people in autistic circles are uncomfortably familiar with the facts of the case (hence my very brief recap of the relevant facts). But a lot of people are not attorneys. And believe it or not, there’s one tiny good thing about this plea bargain. In amidst all the bad things.


Kelli was allowed to plead guilty to Class A first-degree child abuse. Child abuse is defined in the Michigan Penal Code as “knowingly or intentionally caus[ing] serious physical or serious mental harm to a child.” Serious physical harm is defined as “any physical injury to a child that seriously impairs the child’s health or physical well-being” and it specifically includes internal injury and poisoning. Legally, the cause of action is solid. Let me make that clear. Kelli knowingly caused serious physical harm to Issy – she is of average intelligence and there is nothing in any court record I can find to indicate that she was mentally impaired enough to think that carbon monoxide would not cause injury.

Kelli had been arrested for the crime of attempted murder. The Michigan Penal Code is much less wordy about attempted murder. In its entirety, the relevant section of code says: “Any person who shall attempt to commit the crime of murder by poisoning, drowning, or strangling another person, or by any means not constituting the crime of assault with intent to murder, shall be guilty of a felony, punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for life or any term of years.”

Image description: A pair of wire-rimmed, gold-colored glasses on a deep blue backround, lying next to a charm which bears the scales of justice.

Image description: A pair of wire-rimmed, gold-colored glasses on a deep blue backround, lying next to a charm which bears the scales of justice.

The maximum sentence for both attempted murder and first-degree child abuse is life in prison. However, and this is the thing that scares me the most – there is no real mandatory minimum. Some states have a set-in-stone mandatory minimum amount of time that must be served upon conviction of any specific crime. Michigan has recommended minimums, but there is a lot of precedent for ignoring them. Indeed, the trend in Michigan right now is to drop mandatory minimums – in 2003 they were jettisoned for some federal crimes completely, and even now people are agitating for greater flexibility in federal sentencing guidelines.

There are several reasons why I am very afraid that Kelli will be sentenced to a term far closer to the minimum than the max.

  • The presiding judge is the 19th Judicial Circuit Court’s chief judge, the Hon. James M. Batzer. Batzer is 70 years old, having served on the bench for nearly thirty years. However, he is unable to serve any longer – there is a rule which bars those over 70 from running for new terms, though they can complete their current term if they turn 70 during that time. That means that whether he decides to throw the book at her or let her go after a year, there is no backlash that can hurt him. He has no career to lose and no political allies to please. This could turn out to be a pleasant surprise, but it’s just too hard to tell. Batzer has a tough record on killers (his best known case is probably that of Mark and Florence Unger, where the husband was convicted of letting his wife drown after she fell into Lake Michigan), but none of the killers he has ever sentenced before has had a neuroatypical victim, as far as I can divine, and attempted murder cases simply aren’t covered as much as murders. 
  • Media attention. No judge is immune, and it doesn’t help that a hack Beverly Hills psychologist named Carole Lieberman has been yapping about the case. She was quoted in an Associated Press story about the sentencing, stating that Kelli “has been living in a war zone” and was legally insane when she committed the crime. Lieberman, however, has a middling-to-low rating on HealthGrades, and describes herself as a “TV/radio host and speaker” before she mentions psychiatry. I’d be willing to bet she wouldn’t know legal insanity from her elbow. In Michigan, legal insanity is defined as “lack[ing] substantial capacity either to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his or her conduct, or i[inability] to conform his or her conduct to the requirements of the law.” In other words, did you know your actions were wrong? You bet Kelli did.
  • Michigan sentencing guidelines. Holy hell, they are complex, involving point scoring and grids – but the upshot is that the sentencing guidelines state that Class A first degree child abuse can result in a term up to life – but depending on the judge’s discretion and the sentencing guidelines, she could be out in as little as four years. Yes, four years. If you do the math after going through the grids and the categories, you get a figure between 75 and 115 points – depending on whether you think Kelli deliberately intended to kill Issy, and did so with premeditation. If you think she didn’t, she gets 75 points, which is a minimum of 4 1/4 years. If you think she did, she gets 115 points, which means a minimum of 15 years. (Big warning for math in that link.) It might confuse you if you look at the chart, but since Kelli has no prior convictions of any kind (at least, not that I’ve been able to find), the box that tells us what her sentence could be are the bottom left three (depending on whether you think she committed the crime with premeditation). For example, if you think the crime was not premeditated, you’d use the fourth box in the first row. The recommended minimum is 51 months – four and 1/4 years, but could be up to 85 – seven years. If you think the crime was premeditated, you’d use the bottom box on the left. The recommended minimum there would be 108 months (9 years), and could be up to 18-0 (15 years). It’s important to notice that these are minimums, not maximums.
    • TL;DR – depending on whether or not you think the crime was premeditated, the minimum sentence she could get is 4 1/4 years, and the max is life. My gut says the sentence will likely fall somewhere around 15 years. And no, that’s nowhere near enough.
  • The usual anti-autistic hatred. And yes, it is hatred. The complete lack of give-a-crap evinced by the attorneys on both sides. The hateful comments on articles that betray a complete and utter lack of understanding and sympathy for Issy and other autistics. All the defense has to do to get Kelli a light sentence is to portray Issy as an animalistic monster – which shouldn’t be hard, given the way she’s described by some of these experts. The main issue seems to be the beliefs, in tandem, that (1) nonverbal means noncommunicative in any respect, and (2) that an autistic raging means nothing – that there’s no rhyme or reason to it. Both of them are completely and utterly wrong.

However, all of this is in the hands of Judge Batzer. There will be no jury, no trial. No expert testimony. Because Sara Swanson, the prosecuting attorney, saw fit to take a plea.

There are times when a plea bargain is appropriate. This, in my personal and professional opinion, is not one of those times. Attempted murder of a child should never be pled out. Ever. News outlets have said that Kelli “wanted to save her family the stress of a trial” and while I don’t know if that’s the case, I would never take that plea as a professional. Never mind as an autistic. I don’t know how Swanson will be able to live with the possibility that Kelli will get out and want to be in Issy’s life again. Because she just might.

Oh, right. One good thing about this plea-bargain.

Benzie County, Michigan is extremely rural and conservative, with populations identifying as Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, and even some Mormon adherents. The most well-represented occupation is cleaning/building maintenance. The total population is around 18,000. Those who don’t normally live there are rich vacationers (it’s right next to Traverse City, which is a popular vacation spot). In short, you have blue-collar and white-collar conservatives – most of whom likely only know autism either from the media, or from throwing money at “afflicted” relatives to make them “normal.” Getting a jury with the slightest understanding of Issy’s life would have been an absolute nightmare.

As an attorney, I’m required to be impartial and calm, as well as not give any kind of specific legal advice. I have not given any specific legal advice here. And I am calm. But there’s no way I can be impartial. I’m sick over the idea that my profession will not protect people like Issy as well as it should. I feel as though I’ve let her down, as silly as that might be. I want to do better. I want us to do better.

For a while I wasn’t sure why I was so angry about the plea-bargain – the penalty for first-degree child abuse is actually more severe in Kelli’s case than it would be for attempted murder; it’s not like she was going to be acquitted, and it’s not like she was going to get life – come on, I’m not that optimistic. But I realized that I was furious, just downright livid, that Issy wouldn’t get her day in court. That no one would hear the gory details of just what Kelli tried to do to her own flesh and blood, the daughter she ought to have protected but instead tried to “make normal.” Yes, we got Kelli’s soppy, self-serving recounting, complete with tears and references to “going to Jesus” (that link makes me sick to my stomach, but I include it in the interests of being thorough). But we didn’t get Issy’s side. We didn’t get how terrifying and awful it must have been. Even in pleading guilty, Kelli kept control. Issy didn’t get a say. Even on her way to prison, Kelli kept Issy from having a voice. (That level of manipulation, domination and control is indicative of what used to be called sociopathy.) And I will never forgive that evil, narcissistic woman for that. Ever. I do believe there is evil in the world. 

I’m just praying to whatever G-d may be there, or whatever fate controls the universe, that Judge Batzer does the right thing. 



  1. New article in the local paper about Kelli buying a shock collar for Issy among many other things. This was in the husband’s testimony.

    There were so many more incidents of child abuse that the PA had to create an addendum. Let us hope this helps the judge with his tally. Her kids should not have to deal with her in their lives ever again or at least until they are fully grown adults.

    1. I feel legitimately sick to my stomach. Though I’m glad you brought that to my attention; it may result in an addendum to the post. If those kinds of statements can be substantiated, that would definitely indicate malice, which would definitely factor into the sentencing.

      That evil bitch.

      1. there is a new posting under where the poster quotes from a tweet kelli stapleton did back in 2011 when her daughter was just 11 years old. It went something like this – that she was angry with the pharmacy because she went there to get the morning after pill but found out that 11 years was too long to wait before she took it.

  2. Every time I see someone defending the horrific actions of this woman, I want to throw up. I have three wonderful and amazing autistic children who are the light of my life. Yes, they have challenges, but so does every human being on this earth. The joy that they bring into my life and the lives of those around them is immeasurable and the idea that a parent would ever feel justified in harming their child is unfathomable to me. Your job as a parent is to love and support and accept your children. No matter what, not just if they meet your expectations of what they should be. I hope they lock her up for a long long time.

  3. Good post, thanks for writing it. I think the prosecutor took the plea to eliminate the risk of an acquittal on the attempted murder charge. Though opinions may vary on the degree of that risk, it is there, and just reading the comments under the newspaper articles tells me that there is a real possibility that a random selection of people from the community could buy into the insanity defense – that Stapleton “snapped” due to reasons involving victim-blaming and was so distraught that she couldn’t conform her conduct to the requirements of the law. I think it’s unlikely that would happen but it is possible, and I think the prosecutors are more concerned with getting a conviction than in having the highest possible sentence imposed.

    1. It’s extremely possible you’re right – as I noted, I really doubt they could have gotten a jury with a good understanding of autism. And obviously, some time is better than none. But not by much.

  4. I’d caution you against relying on the information from the Record-Eagle to be factual as it is the lone source for the shock collar story.

    For the benefit of the non-legal readers:

    The juicy bits about the shock collar, etc, are a collection of cherry-picked information from several motions filed this year, among those were motions he selected could contain inadmissible testimony, i.e. hearsay, which, while acceptable for a presentencing report, would violate a defendant’s due process were they to be presented in a court of law, as hearsay is inadmissible.

    While the paper can say in their defense that these statements from the motions filed are part of the public record, what they can’t guarantee is their accuracy, which is up to the officer filing the report to assert their accuracy with their best available information.

    While all of this makes for a good story, and validates what you already believe about the defendant, can you really determine whether Matt/Kelli Stapleton actually said and did those things, or if someone is simply saying without proof that Matt/Kelli Stapleton said/did those things? Your witness, counselor.

    1. Thank you for your reply. I would reply with two points, though – (1) that story is very new and as such, more information could appear later on, and (2) even if the shock collar stuff is irrelevant for sentencing purposes, which it would be (you’re quite right on that score) it still gives us insight into Kelli if true. Read the woman’s blog, for heaven’s sake. While I obviously can’t make a pronouncement with any degree of certainty, the level of manipulation and control exhibited in those entries do not show a woman incapable of buying a shock collar to use on her own daughter. That has no probative value in court, but it’s an opinion I am still entitled to. Part of this post was my own personal reaction to the case as an autistic person, and also as someone from Michigan. And that reaction is horror, and fury.

    2. If the Record-Eagle got the information from *actual motions filed in court*, frankly I will be giving them more credence, not less. And just to keep things straight–Kelli is the one on trial here, not Matt.

  5. I’m horrified at how lightly Kelli got off and literally terrified about what a sub-set of sympathetic moms of kids on the may well end up doing to their own kids!

    Lexi Magnussen takes the cake though:

    She not only sympathizes with Kelli’s supposed “plight” but also with the parents of autistic kids who died via elopement (aka neglect)! A kid like Mikayla Lynch, whose parents failed to supervise her and who died as a direct result!!

    1. As far as I know, Kelli has not yet been sentenced. But otherwise, I agree. And I tried to read that and got about ten words in before I wanted to throw up. Those people are scary.

      1. Francine Krencicki’s comment deleted. I will not brook any patronizing crap here, nor will I accept anyone attempting to defend Kelli Stapleton. She not only tried to murder her autistic daughter – she abused and tortured her during her life. It is torture to “normalize” an autistic. It is torture to subject an autistic to therapies designed to extinguish all stimming and autistic behavior. Your lack of ability to comprehend the autistic view is your problem, not mine. We are in fact people, and what Kelli did deserves a far longer prison sentence than she will receive.

      2. Francine, while I do grant that you don’t seem to be looking for a fight, I am not interested in “debating” Kelli’s perspective. If Kelli had committed suicide under strain, I would have felt all the sympathy in the world for her. But she did not even try to understand Isabelle or why she might have been doing what she was doing – she instead filmed her daughter in vulnerable moments, stuck her in extremely aggressive normalization therapy, and generally wrote her off as a human. As an autistic person, I simply would not be able to live with myself if I categorized any part of Kelli’s behavior as acceptable. I may not change other people’s minds, but I do think I have a right to remove comments from my personal space that talk about “Kelli’s perspective” or come off as patronizing. Kelli lost any ability to garner sympathy from me as soon as she raised a hand to her daughter.

        While I don’t believe you are intending to trigger anyone, I will not be discussing this further, and comments defending Kelli will be deleted.

  6. I want to thank the author for explaining a lot about this case that was previously not known to me. I am likewise horrified about how far backwards people bend themselves to absolve a would-be murderer, whilst Issy barely even has a chance to assert her right to exist.

    The impact crimes like these have on other autistic people is extreme. Like yourself, I was diagnosed late in life. But I did not “get off so easy”. I was already nursing minor post-traumatic symptoms from having literally been chased out of the school system. I have precious little doubt that if I had been born in 1998 as opposed to 1978, one or both of my parental units would have just tried to kill me. And I mean seriously tried, not the times when physical abuse escalated.

    The instances of discrimination against me by services in my part of the world essentially send me a message. I apparently do not have a right to exist, or live like a Human being. But people like Autism Speaks apparently have a right to make slanderous ad campaigns and narcissistic propagandas that encourage people like Kelli Stapleton to think of me as less than Human. This imbalance in the way my rights as a person are seen is a major factor in my inability to wake up in mornings without feeling sick, hungover, or on the verge of tearing out what little hair I have left.

    Sometimes the law is not enough? More like all of the time where autistic people are concerned. Had I succeeded in getting out of the carefully-crafted poverty trap that had been laid for me, I would now be paying the big dogs in whatever prison Kelli Stapleton is sent to to “welcome” her.

    Because until there is a universal understanding among the normies that autistic people are not just there to be abused or killed by them, none of us are safe. I feel that in my bones whenever I am awake. I feel that in my dreams whilst I am asleep. And until the law recognises facts like this, it has no hope of ever being enough.

  7. Francine doesn’t want us to use hearsay in order to have more insight into Kelli’s character. How about this quote from Kelli herself which comes from Kelli’s own podcast which was published in 2010, when Issy was only 10 years old:

    “I can’t help but think if she were just dead, my life would be better. I could grieve for her and be sad, but I wouldn’t be dealing with this day to day” – Transcript from Kelli’s own podcast 2010. (not hearsay)

    1. She’s correct about the value of hearsay at sentencing, which is nil, but it’s important to know what we’re up against as people. Parents don’t think of their kids as angels all the time – but I don’t know many who admit or discuss openly that they’ve fantasized about their child being dead. And I’m sorry, I’ve studied criminology as well as it being a *~special interest~* of mine – what was once called sociopathy is marked by manipulation (what Kelli’s doing in the media), domination (forcing Issy and the rest of the family to do what she wanted all the time) and control (threatening to fire her attorneys, pleading it down so her life wouldn’t be laid out in court).

      Oh, and by the way? Michigan has a hearsay exception where a character trait of the accused can be offered in evidence of conduct. Matt Stapleton’s words wouldn’t be admissible, likely, under that exception, but Kelli’s own words would be. Kelli’s statement you articulated implies malice and/or aggression. The character of the accused for things like aggression can be introduced by the prosecution in response to the aspersions Kelli and her defense team are casting on Issy. Michigan Rules of Evidence 404. Kiss the fattest part of my butt, Francine.

  8. Also just to be clear I’m not defending parents who don’t know where their kids are for hours or days at a time. That is completely unacceptable. I just meant not all eloping is result of neglect.

  9. Anna, I have absolutely no doubt you do your complete best for your kids, autistic and non-autistic. And kids certainly do elope. I would never deny that. However, this post isn’t about Issy’s behavior; nor is it about the good parents (who absolutely abound, and deserve praise for doing the right thing). It’s about the culture that still surrounds autism parents and how Kelli is still being sympathized with, despite the revelations that she bought a SHOCK COLLAR for her own daughter. That’s something parents need to work on within their own community, because silence on these topics is equivalent, in many minds, with accepting our oppression.

    In other words, this is not the blog post to talk about good parents, though it’s a conversation that needs to be had.

  10. I just want to say I’m so thankful to have found this site. It has been very upsetting for me since this case was first in the news. I am currently in law school and have a special focus on helping survivors of child abuse and domestic violence. From the very beginning I viewed kelli stapleton as a glaring example of a child abuser and it seemed obvious to me that any lashing out Issy was doing was her attempt to communicate what was happening to her at the hands of her mother when nobody was looking. No kidding, I have been attacked so many times in the discussions that I’m just shocked by how ignorant, and yes I believe it is total lack of intelligence not just being unaware, that the people who talk about “walking in her shoes” present. They seem to refuse to ever discuss the details or the facts of the case. Instead they just seem ready to attack anyone who sees the obvious by calling them judgmental. so disgusting, time after time, then I see your post today and think YAY! there is intelligent life on this planet! When this case first broke I had been a member of a dance group for a couple of years, a group of women who were always very supportive of each other, very kind, very neat, respectful, fun. when I disagreed with the poor Kelli routine, I was immediately attacked for my opinion and I haven’t been there since. The owner of the dance studio was the most offensive and when I stood up to the bull she got downright dirty. It was so disgusting, all in the name of “compassion” for a woman who admitted she tried to murder her daughter. So, thank you for your writings and thank you for seeing through the manipulation campaign that it seems Kelli Stapleton has been working on for at least one year and probably more like the five to six years leading up to the “event”.

    1. It’s good work you’re doing. I do primarily immigration law, and I do a lot of refugee cases – people who’ve seen horrific things. It’s rough but rewarding. And all this talk about Kelli’s shoes … did Issy not have any? Did Kelli try to take them away?

  11. I’m not a lawyer, nor am I on the spectrum (that I know of), but I’m the mom of two children on the spectrum and I’ve been following this case since the news first broke. (I live an hour’s drive from Benzie County).

    And as a mom who’s experienced firsthand the lack of services and who’s been physically attacked by my child (although not on purpose – he doesn’t target me specifically, but anyone/anything is fair game mid-meltdown), I have NO sympathy. None. I hope she gets life in prison. (And of course that makes me horribly judgmental and I’ve been condemned for my lack of sympathy towards Issy’s abuser).

    It scares me the number of sympathizers this woman has – to me that’s like saying it’s okay to hurt a child, as long as that child has special needs that are stressful and challenging for the parents. “It’s understandable” to try to kill your child if that child’s behaviors are overwhelming to you? No, it’s not. It’s not any more understandable or acceptable than a parent who shakes a baby who won’t stop crying. Just because a child exhibits behaviors that are challenging (or even overwhelming) for the parent, does NOT make it okay for that parent to hurt that child.

    So thanks for this post, and I’m very glad I stumbled across your blog. As a parent of children on the spectrum, I try to read as much as I can from people who are on the spectrum themselves, to help me better understand my kids and learn what to do (and what not to do).

  12. When Issy was 11 years old, Kelli tweeted the following:
    “I’m so disgusted with our local pharmacy. I went in there begging for the “morning after pill” apparently 11 years is too late…..”
    This tweet is from K. Stapleton’s second twitter page. The thumbnail photo is clearly her, although she is wearing sunglasses. This is the twitter where you can see the “real” side of her. Where she calls her sister-in-laws “pit vipers” where she talks about Issy as if she were inhuman. You will recognize the names of the people she interacts with there. The tweet in question was posted on October 22, 2010. I have a screen shot, too, as I’m sure the “BFF’s” will take it down soon.

  13. Two comments from an ableist hack deleted. It’s hilarious when people say “But [ABA, institutionalization, etc] is the therapy that’s standard for autistic children!” as if it makes it any less abusive and dehumanizing.

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