A tearful Kelci N. Niemerg was sentenced to five years in prison for causing permanent injury to a child in her care more than two years ago.
Niemerg, 25, had pleaded guilty in April to one count of aggravated battery on the eve of going to trial on a much more serious charge. The rural Dieterich woman had been charged with aggravated battery to a child, a Class X felony with a sentencing range of six to 30 years.
Niemerg admitted “slamming” young Nathan Dill into a playpen on May 4, 2011. The subsequent head injury left the baby legally blind and severely brain damaged. Nathan’s mother testified Friday that her younger son, who is now 2 years and 8 months old, will never be able to lead a normal life.
Judge Kimberly Koester said she considered the severity of Nathan’s injuries before deciding on prison time for Niemerg, who had been seeking probation because she is pregnant with her third child.
“This situation caused a grave injury to a 7-month old child who did nothing to deserve this,” Koester said.
The judge admitted her decision would not please either family. State’s Attorney Bryan Kibler had asked that Niemerg be sentenced to the maximum 10 years in prison. The defendant was eligible for an extended term because of the age of the victim.
“There’s nothing I can say that can make one side or the other happy,” Koester said. “All I can do is make a decision based on what I have sworn to do.”
Koester said probation was not an appropriate sentence, given the extent of Nathan’s injuries.
“If I were to place you on probation, it would deprecate the seriousness of the offense,” she said.
With day-for-day credit plus potential time off for good behavior and completing various types of coursework available in the prison system, Niemerg could be free in little more than two years. She was also ordered to pay $28,202.49 in restitution for a portion of Nathan’s medical bills, which mother Laura said in court Friday totaled about $1.3 million to date.
Koester did grant a defense motion to let Niemerg stay home for two weeks so she can see her doctor and prepare her children, ages 7 and 3, for her extended absence. The judge ordered Niemerg to appear at the Effingham County Sheriff’s Department at 9 a.m. June 20 for transport to a Department of Corrections facility.
Niemerg was sentenced despite a tearful allocution statement in which she apologized to the victim’s family, as well as her own.
“I am so sorry, and I know no apology is going to help,” she said. “To my family, I am sorry I put you through this.”
But Niemerg said sending her to prison was not the answer.
“Sending me to prison will not help them (the Dill family),” she said. “I am pregnant with my third baby, and I don’t want to be pregnant in a prison.”
Earlier Friday, Nathan’s mother Laura expressed her desire that Niemerg be sent to prison for “a very long time.”
“Even 10 years is short,” Mrs. Dill said.
The victim’s mother delivered a lengthy victim impact statement in which she outlined the care that Nathan will likely need for the rest of his life, as well the negative impact on herself, husband Donnie and her two older children.
“The doctors have said Nathan will have no quality of life, solely based on what she (Niemerg) did,” she said.
Mrs. Dill said Niemerg made a conscious decision to endanger her child.
“This was Kelci’s choice,” she said. “She didn’t have the right to make that choice.”
But defense attorney Bill Milner called a succession of character witnesses, mostly relatives and in-laws, who extolled the virtues of Niemerg as a mother and caregiver. Several of those 15 character witnesses said they would gladly entrust Niemerg with the care of their own children.
Some of those defense witnesses had employed Niemerg to watch their children before the events of May 4, 2011.
“I always thought she did a good job,” said Philip Repking, whose daughter was in Niemerg’s care. “If we were allowed to take her (his daughter) there, we would.”
Friend Maria McWhorter said Niemerg became like a “second mother” to her children, while Holly Ordner, who described herself as Niemerg’s best friend, said her friend was very “laid back and caring.”
“If I had kids, I would definitely let her watch my children,” Ordner said.
Husband Greg Niemerg described his wife as “the best mom ever.”
The daylong hearing began Friday morning with testimony from a variety of prosecution witnesses. Some, like Dr. Colleen Bingham — Nathan’s pediatrician — and neighbor Michelle Hartke, testified about the changes Nathan underwent after the injury.
Bingham testified that Nathan was a normal child before May 4, 2011.
“His physical and social development was very normal,” she said. “He was rolling over, sitting up, and seeking attention from whoever was in the room.”
Bingham said she had seen Nathan the day before he was injured and noticed no signs of stress.
Since the injury, Bingham said, she has seen Nathan every two or four weeks because of the developmental issues stemming from the injury.
“He functions at the level of a 4-month-old,” the doctor said.
Bingham said the injury caused “severe” brain damage that has left Nathan legally blind and unable to sit up on his own. She also testified that he will “probably” need some form of assistance for the rest of his life.
“Will he ever be able to live on his own?” asked Kibler.
“Probably not,” Bingham responded, as Donnie Dill began crying in the front row of the courtroom.
Hartke, a longtime friend of the Dills, provided more personal testimony for the prosecution.
“He was one of the happiest little babies to be around,” she said. “He’s not a happy little baby any more.
“He fusses a lot when people try to hold him,” she added. “He’s just not the same boy.”
Hartke said the injury has had a negative impact on Nathan’s family. She said Laura had to quit her job to take care of Nathan, and that Donnie had to step up his work schedule to make up the lost income. She added that Nathan’s older brother Noah “fights for attention” in the wake of all the care his little brother needs.
Also testifying during the morning court session was Special Agent Holly Finley of the Illinois State Police, who interviewed Niemerg shortly after Nathan was injured. The packed courtroom sat through a 51-minute videotaped interview with Niemerg, Finley and Special Agent Albert Gallatin. During that interview, Niemerg admitted “slamming” Nathan into a playpen, causing him to hit his head on a metal toolbox stored behind the playpen.
“I can’t believe I did that,” Niemerg told the investigators. “I’m such a bad mom — a bad babysitter.”
Kibler said after the hearing he thought the key piece of evidence was a video by investigator Ron Kilman in which Mrs. Dill showed the extensive care that Nathan required on a daily basis.
“Words can only express so much, but it was important to use for the judge to be able to see something,” Kibler said.
Milner said he planned to file a motion in an effort to get Koester to reconsider her decision.