UPDATE: Wagner woman sentenced to 22 years for child deathA Wagner woman arrested after a 2-year-old girl was found dead lying in a closet in the woman's home has been sentenced to 22 years in prison.
By: Chris Mueller, The Daily Republic
LAKE ANDES -- As Laurie Cournoyer spoke of her crimes, she wept.
“I chose to put that needle in my vein,” she said, addressing the court. “Now for the rest of my life I have to live with that choice I made.”
She was sentenced to 22 years in prison on multiple charges Thursday morning at the Charles Mix County Courthouse in Lake Andes.
Cournoyer, 29, was arrested with her husband, Taylor Cournoyer, 22, on July 4 after 2-year-old Rielee Lovell was found dead in a closet in their home at a Yankton Sioux tribal housing project near Wagner. Both have since admitted to using methamphetamine, sleeping pills and marijuana in the days leading up to the child’s death.
Cournoyer grew emotional and cried as she gave a statement during Thursday’s sentencing hearing.
“As much as I wish I could go back and change things, I can’t,” she said. “I can, however, take responsibility for my part, for creating an environment where something bad happened and I didn’t know about it because I was high.”
Cournoyer said she was grateful for having Lovell in her life and said the toddler didn’t deserve to die. Full details of why Lovell was in the Cournoyers’ care have never emerged, but it was stated in court Thursday that the couple had taken in several children.
“I’m ready for a change,” she said. “I feel so bad that something like this had to happen for me to straighten myself out.”
Cournoyer said her experience should raise awareness of the Wagner area’s problem of drug-use, specifically meth, and drug-related crime.
“Meth is hurting our people,” she said. “Our families. Our community. But most importantly, our children.”
'This cannot be tolerated'
Assistant Attorney General Bill Golden, the prosecutor, put Agent Riley Cook, of the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation, on the stand Thursday to testify. Cook is the lead investigator on the case and was called to the crime scene on July 4. He described the Cournoyers’ home as being in “disarray” that day.
“The odor of decomposition was strong upon entering the residence,” he said. “You could identify the odor as soon as you approached the door.”
During Cook’s testimony, Golden showed photos of the Cournoyer home, including photos of Lovell’s lifeless body on a blanket on the Cournoyers’ bedroom floor; a used syringe containing meth in a garbage can in the kitchen; and pill bottles and a marijuana pipe in the couple’s bedroom.
Cook said the prosecution found out an FBI agent had told Taylor and Laurie Cournoyer an 11-year-old child living with them shouldn’t be left alone with the five other younger children.
“Prior to the incident, prior to July 4, the oldest son was becoming more aggressive and angry towards Rielee,” Cook said.
The 11-year-old boy was charged in connection with Lovell’s death, but the details of his alleged involvement have been withheld due to his age.
Golden asked Judge Steven Jensen to give Cournoyer the maximum sentence on every charge.
“This cannot be tolerated,” he said. “This is probably one of the most disturbing cases I’ve ever worked on.”
An autopsy revealed Lovell was dead for between 18 and 30 hours before her death was reported to authorities, Golden said. A 6-year-old in the home even told Cournoyer that “Rielee was gone,” but Cournoyer, on drugs at the time, didn’t believe it, Golden said.
“This wasn’t just an incident,” he said. “This was a lifestyle. And this is what happens when people resort to drugs.”
The children in the couple’s home and the community itself have been harmed by this event, Golden said.
“The harm has a ripple effect,” he said. “It doesn’t stop.”
'Somebody who has remorse'
Cournoyer’s court-appointed attorney Scott Swier called the incident a “perfect storm” of drug addiction paired with a “heinous act” committed by a child against another child.
“It was caused by the fact that Laurie has an incredible addiction to methamphetamine,” he said.
Cournoyer’s actions are indefensible, Swier said, but it’s vital she get treatment for her addiction.
“This is somebody who has remorse and actually gets it,” Swier said. “She gets what a major screw-up this was.”
Swier asked Jensen to consider Cournoyer’s remorse and willingness to admit she has an addiction in fashioning her sentence.
“Let’s look at the crime,” Swier said. “But let’s also look at the person.”
Swier asked Jensen to give Cournoyer a sentence similar to the one Taylor Cournoyer was given. Taylor Cournoyer was sentenced to 13 years in prison last November.
“This is not the type of person that we just want to give the maximum sentence to and just throw away the key,” Swier said.
Jensen acknowledged that Cournoyer’s role in Lovell’s death was technically indirect, but said she still bears much of the blame.
“I don’t think we would be sitting here today if Ms. Cournoyer had taken responsibility in her role as caretaker,” Jensen said.
Jensen noted Cournoyer had gone through drug treatment two years ago but failed to complete it, because she didn’t comply with the program’s rules.
“She didn’t ever take the steps to address that addiction,” he said.
Jensen sentenced Cournoyer to 10 years in prison on one count of possession of a controlled substance, five years on one count of failure to report the death of a child and five years for keeping a place for the use or sale of controlled substances. Those charges are all related to the incident involving Lovell’s death.
Cournoyer was also sentenced to 10 years in prison with eight years suspended in prison for being caught with meth while in custody in the Charles Mix County Jail.
Jensen ordered all of Cournoyer’s prison time to be served consecutively, or one term after the other for a total of 22 years. She was given credit for the jail time she has already served since her arrest.
Cournoyer will serve at least 30 to 40 percent of her sentence before she is eligible for parole, Jensen said.
“I think you have something to offer,” Jensen said. “But I also think there needs to be a significant punishment in this case.”