SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — A Wisconsin woman accused of killing her baby more than 50 years ago showed up at her sentencing hearing Wednesday expecting to be sentenced to 45 days in jail as part of a plea agreement forged between lawyers. Instead, Ruby C. Klokow was sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Klokow, 76, squeezed her eyes shut when a Sheboygan County judge told her that abiding by the plea agreement between prosecutors and her defense attorney would have been an affront to justice.
“What happened to Jeaneen Klokow was no accident. It was caused by the defendant’s reckless actions,” Judge Angela Sutkiewicz said.
Klokow had pleaded no contest in February to a charge of second-degree murder stemming from the 1957 death of her 6-month-old daughter. At the time, Jeaneen’s death was ruled an accident but the case was reopened in 2008 after Klokow’s son came forward with allegations of horrific child abuse.
Under questioning by investigators, Klokow acknowledged throwing Jeaneen roughly on the couch, causing her to bounce to the floor.
Klokow didn’t speak at her sentencing hearing. An abused son pleaded for a lengthy sentence, while a number of Klokow’s relatives tried to persuade the judge that Klokow already had been punished enough through decades of knowing what happened to her baby.
When the sentence was handed down an audible gasp filled the courtroom. Klokow, who had been occasionally dabbing her eyes and nose with a wadded-up tissue, closed her eyes and then blinked rapidly several times.
Defense attorney Kirk Obear told reporters afterward he was surprised by the sentence.
“If we could do it all over again, we’d have a trial and we’d win,” Obear said.
He promised to initiate an appeal Thursday morning, in part on the basis of the sentencing process. He noted that the pre-sentencing report raised allegations that Klokow also physically and emotionally abused her other children decades ago, even though the statute of limitations on those abuse claims would have run out. He said those allegations shouldn’t have been relevant for the purpose of sentencing.
Klokow likely will be granted parole when she becomes eligible in 2½ years, district attorney Joe DeCecco said
The case presented a number of quandaries for prosecutors. Klokow would have had to be tried for second-degree murder, a now-outdated charge, under the standards in play at the time of the 1957 crime. The obligations would include proving the defendant had a “depraved mind,” a term so vague it was impossible to predict how jurors would interpret it in 2013.
DeCecco noted other reasons why the case would be difficult to prosecute. Key witnesses had died, memories had faded and jurors were likely to see Klokow as a sympathetic maternal or grandmotherly figure.
So he worked out a plea agreement calling for a lenient sentence, knowing the judge would probably overrule him with a much tougher punishment. He and Obear each recommended a sentence of 45 days in jail and 10 years of probation. But a judge is not bound by plea agreements, and Sutkiewicz did override this one.
“Anything but incarceration would diminish the seriousness of the offense,” Sutkiewicz said.
Klokow, who sat in a pink turtleneck sweater and black slacks, wept when the sentence was handed down. Later, she stood at the clear plastic partition separating her from her supporters, their hands pressed against opposite sides of the window as if to touch one last time.
Eventually Klokow was led weeping from the courtroom. Supporters who reached out to touch her were nudged away by deputies.
Klokow’s case was delayed several times after she was charged in 2011. Her mental-health status was in question but a judge ultimately decided she was competent to assist in her defense.
An initial autopsy found that Jeaneen suffered two brain hemorrhages, a partially collapsed lung and three scalp bruises. However the death was ruled accidental.
The baby’s death haunted Jeaneen’s older brother, James Klokow Jr., now 57. He says he grew up traumatized because his mother always told him he was to blame for his baby sister’s death because the girl fell while Ruby Klokow was distracted by his misbehavior.
James Klokow eventually told police in 2008 of abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother. He told investigators she often beat and choked him and kicked him with steel-toed boots. He said his mother broke his arm and nose, and described how she covered the head of his mentally challenged younger brother, Bruce, and struck the wailing boy’s toes one by one with a hammer.
Obear said those events either never happened or that Klokow’s now-deceased husband was the actual abuser.
Before his mother’s sentencing, James Klokow read a tearful statement to the judge
“My mother killed my baby sister,” he said, his voice cracking. “She did not cherish her, she did not love her, she did not protect her. … I feel my mother should get 20 years in prison.”
In addition to Jeaneen, James and Bruce, Klokow had a fourth child, Scott, who died as a baby. His body was disinterred along with Jeaneen’s as police investigated but his death couldn’t be considered suspicious.