Why did she do it?
How could a mother, who is called protective and loving by even those who want to see her in prison the rest of her life, think it was OK to leave her 1-year-old alone? How could she sit, as witnesses said, for more than five hours getting her hair braided while her daughter lay in a car on a June day in Georgia?
Some questions have no good answers. Dijanelle Fowler, 25, herself offered none in DeKalb County court Wednesday. But she pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Skylar Fowler, who was claimed by the heat after, her attorney says, the car's air condition ran the battery dead.
“I will admit I made a poor decision, a decision that I cannot take back, a decision I will never make again,” the mother said in between breakdowns and accusations about how Skylar’s father could’ve helped her more. “I take full responsibility for being negligent.”
In the courtroom gallery, the father’s family shook their heads to make clear he did everything he could, even when he was deployed in the Middle East with the Air Force. Louis Williams II’s family also laid hands on his shoulders when he bowed his head, resting it on the pink journal he had filled with lessons from Proverbs to give to Skylar one day.
Fowler didn’t have a soul in the courtroom on her behalf, other than defense attorney Charles Brant.
“We’ve reached out and tried to get family here,” Brant said. “That’s pretty much the story of Miss Fowler.”
When it came time for Judge Linda Hunter to sentence the defendant, Fowler wrapped her arms around her torso, hugging herself. Hunter sentenced her to 20 years, with the first 15 to be in prison. She’ll get credit for time served.
She’d been in jail since last July when police took out warrants for her arrest after security cameras outside the Lavista Road salon showed she hadn’t gone to check on the child during the entire appointment. Fowler was in the process of moving to Atlanta at the time, Williams still deployed.
Hunter’s sentence was harsher than the one Fowler's attorney asked for, but much lower than the 40 years the state and Skylar's father requested.
Hunter said she simply didn’t understand how the prosecution thought that length of time would be justified for a woman with no criminal record and not so much as a single allegation of poor parenting before the day Skylar died.
The judge mentioned other parents who’d left their children in hot cars. Parents who’d left thier kids home alone too long, including a former judge in Fulton County. Parents who'd made grievous errors after strong track records of parenting, like Fowler.
Did such people deserve lifetimes of punishments even if their crimes had caused lifetimes of hurt and even death?
“I’m not here to seek revenge,” Hunter said, looking toward Williams' family. “A judge’s job is not to send a message.”
Hunter seemed impressed with Fowler’s story: a young woman who’d overcome abuse in her childhood, recovered from a broken neck she sustained playing college basketball and went on to captain the team at Charleston Southern University in South Carolina.
It was in the Charleston area where Fowler met Williams, and a tumultuous relationship ensued. They finally decided they couldn’t get along, but Skylar was already on the way.
The judge seemed to smile as Williams beamed talking about the moment when Skylar emerged from the womb and how his life changed. She listened closely as he fought emotion to read the lessons he’d written in that pink journal for Skylar while overseas: “Do for others in all you do.”
But once the sentence came down, Williams sat, stunned to silence. He feared Fowler could get paroled well before 15 years is up if she behaves. District Attorney Sherry Boston came over to comfort him.
In the elevator a few minutes later, headed home, Williams breathed deep and tried to steady his mind.
“That’s crazy,” he said.
Upstairs, Fowler had already been sent back to a cell to start her sentence.