PHOENIX — In the end, the jurors felt they had no choice but to sentence Sammantha Allen to death for the brutal 2011 murder of her 10-year-old cousin, Ame Deal.
The Phoenix woman had been on trial in Maricopa County Superior Court since May, one of four family members charged with disciplining the girl by forcing her to do exercise in sweltering July heat and then locking her in a 31-inch-long footlocker overnight.
That box was padlocked shut and Ame suffocated inside of it in the Phoenix home, authorities say.
"The pictures of the victim stayed in our minds," said juror Ann Ospeth. "I think the thing for us was the victim and all the things her life entailed."
It demanded a death penalty, the jurors agreed.
"We were following what the law stated," said juror Amanda Heath.
And indeed the jurors felt that Allen should be punished to the max.
They also found aggravating factors for the four underlying child-abuse counts against Allen, which allowed the judge to impose harsher sentences for those charges.
Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanders sentenced Allen to an additional four consecutive sentences totaling 76 years for those crimes. She was given credit for more than 2,000 days she has already spent in custody.
Allen was found guilty June 26. Then the jury deliberated for a week over whether there were mitigating factors that would allow Allen to avoid the death penalty and instead be sentenced to life in prison.
They considered her age, her dysfunctional upbringing and the fact that she had no prior criminal record. But they determined the horror of the crime outweighed all of those.
Ame Deal's father, David, was sentenced in June 2013 in Maricopa County Superior Court to 14 years in prison on an attempted child-abuse charge.
The verdict was read late Monday morning in Maricopa County Superior Court. Upon learning her fate, Allen hung her head and wept.
"I just feel sad," said John Curry, her lead defense attorney, as he left the courthouse.
Allen becomes the third woman on Arizona's death row, and the first to be sentenced to death since Shawna Forde in Tucson in 2011. The last woman sentenced to death in Maricopa County was Wendi Andriano in 2004, but not for lack of trying.
Maricopa County prosecutors had to settle for life sentences in the murder trials of Jodi Arias in 2015, Marissa DeVault in 2014 and Marjorie Orbin in 2010, after failing to convince juries to bring back the ultimate punishment.
And in 2013, a federal court of appeals ruling threw out Debra Milke's death sentence because of prosecutor misconduct after she had spent 24 years on death row. An Arizona court ruled a year later that she could not be retried on grounds of double jeopardy.
Ame Deal's short and tragic life ended on July 11, 2011, when temperatures in Phoenix were in the triple digits.
After stealing a frozen treat on a hot summer day, the child was forced into physical exertion, thenpadlocked inside a 31- by 14- by 12-inch footlocker and left overnight, court records say.
Ame was dead by the time someone went to let her out the next morning.
Allen's husband, John Allen, also is charged with murder and child abuse. He has pleaded not guilty, and his trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 9.
Prosecutor Jeannette Gallagher told the court that she needed to press for aggravating factors on Sammantha Allen's child-abuse convictions because they were relevant to John Allen's upcoming trial.
Three other family members are already in prison for their roles in the case. Judith Deal currently is serving a 10-year sentence for a child-abuse conviction. Cynthia Stoltzman, who was Ame's legal guardian, is serving 24 years for child abuse in the case, and David Deal is serving 14 years for child abuse.
“I want to thank the members of the jury for their time and effort on this case and reaching a difficult, but just conclusion for the senseless murder of Ame,” County Attorney Bill Montgomery said in a statement.
In addition to death, Judge Teresa Sanders sentenced Allen to 76 years of consecutive prison sentences after the jury found aggravating factors in the remaining four counts of child abuse. Among the aggravating factors were the especially cruel nature of the crimes, the young age of the victim, the presence of an accomplice (her husband John), and the fact that the defendant was in a position of trust to the victim.
Ame apparently was locked in the footlocker as punishment for taking a frozen treat from the refrigerator. Court records say that John Allen told investigators that he locked Ame in the box while his wife stood by. Then, records say, the Allens fell asleep.
Before Ame was locked in, however, police believe she was forced to spend two hours doing backbends and was forced by John Allen to maintain the torturous position, court records say. She also was forced to run in the yard despite the summer heat, records say. The temperature that day exceeded 103 degrees.
Then, sweating profusely and badly overheated, Ame was forcibly jammed into the footlocker, court records say.
The footlocker had been used on several previous occasions to punish Ame for various offenses, including wetting the bed, according to accounts given to police by others who had lived at the home, court records say.
On one occasion, adults who lived at the house said, as punishment for failing to pick up a dog's droppings, the feces were rubbed onto Ame's face and she was forced to eat them, court records say.
Ame was listed as an "abused, neglected child" in Utah, where the family had lived from 2006 to 2010. Arizona Department of Child Safety, then called Child Protective Services, had no prior contact with the family or with Ame.
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