ATHENS, Ala. — An Alabama woman who confessed to smothering her 4-year-old daughter with a pillow in 2016 has pleaded guilty to the crime and has been sentenced to life in prison.
Stephanie Diane Smith, 29, pleaded guilty to felony murder instead of the original charge of capital murder, which carried the possibility of the death penalty. According to the Athens News-Courier, Smith, who is also known as Stephanie Cooper, was sentenced Monday to life in prison.
Smith was due to stand trial this year in the murder of her daughter, Zadie Wren Cooper, but the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to all jury trials in the state.
Zadie died on July 7, 2016, three days after Smith called 911 and reported that her daughter was not breathing.
Athens police officials said in 2017 that Smith initially told investigators that she heard a noise on the baby monitor July 4 and that when she went to check on Zadie, she found her wedged between her bed and the wall, not breathing. When police and emergency personnel arrived at Smith’s apartment, they found her performing CPR with the help of a dispatcher.
Zadie was on life support for three days, until tests determined that she had no brain activity. Her family removed her from life support and she died.
Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson said during an April 2017 news conference that a private autopsy requested by the girl’s family could not find the cause of her death.
Investigators were still awaiting medical and forensic reports on April 13, 2017, when Smith walked into the police station and said she wanted to speak to an investigator about her daughter’s death. She then confessed to killing the little girl.
In her confession, Smith told police – who later confirmed it with her family – that she has a long history of mental illness.
“(She) told us that she has mental issues and, at the time (of the killing), she had some issues and she was not on her medication,” a somber Johnson said during the news conference, livestreamed on Facebook by WHNT News 19 in Huntsville.
“She went into Zadie’s room, put a pillow over her head; her face – she was sleeping on her back – and smothered the child,” Johnson said. “A short time later, she realized what was going on; she removed the pillow. Zadie was not breathing, and she called 911.”
Watch the 2017 news conference on Smith’s confession below, courtesy of WHNT.
Smith said she initially lied about what happened to police and Department of Human Resources officials because she was afraid of what would happen to her, Johnson said. She reported having numerous mental health issues and listed multiple prescribed drugs that she had stopped taking at the time of her daughter’s death.
She said she had not taken her medication for three days at the time she suffocated Zadie, the chief said.
An April 7, 2017, post on Smith’s Instagram account, a photo of 13 pills, had the caption: “This is what it takes for me to barely function.” It includes hashtags for bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
Smith would confess to killing her daughter six days after posting that image.
Smith told investigators she’s experienced similar, but less severe, incidents in the past.
“She said she ‘sees red,’” Johnson said. “And when she sees red, she doesn’t know what happens until it goes away.”
Johnson said during that 2017 news conference that the girl’s death obviously weighed heavily on her mother’s mind.
“The first thing you think of is Zadie,” Johnson said. “And then you start thinking of the family and the pain that the actions have caused. You think about what Stephanie’s going through, you think about the child’s father, you think about the grandparents, you think about friends.”
Smith’s Instagram account was peppered with photos of her daughter, including one of them together that Smith wrote was taken on a day when she was not feeling well, but Zadie made her feel better.
“Lately I haven’t been well. I need a dose of you, but you’re out of reach. I hope you knew how incredibly important you were to me. You were and still are my world,” Smith wrote. “I’m lost without you. Completely lost. I need you, but you’re not here, and I’m so sorry I couldn’t do anything to stop that.”
“I want to go lie by your grave and never leave.”