Bonnie Liltz stirred feelings of condemnation and sympathy, sometimes at the same time, when she killed her profoundly disabled adult daughter.
But leading up to her sentencing Wednesday, the Schaumburg woman and her family had reason to hope that enough sympathy would prevail to keep her out of prison.
Liltz had adopted her daughter Courtney at age 5, raised her as a single mother and by all accounts was a loving, devoted caretaker. Facing her own serious health problems and despairing over what would happen to Courtney without her, Liltz said she thought she was near death when she gave Courtney a fatal dose of medication and then tried to kill herself.
Even prosecutors recommended that Liltz receive probation, along with mental health treatment.
But Wednesday, Cook County Judge Joel Greenblatt sentenced her to four years in prison.
“The choice you made that morning was not an act of love. It was a crime,” Greenblatt said. “Life is precious … even a life that is profoundly disabled. Your daughter, Courtney, was innocent, vulnerable and fragile.”
Liltz, appearing thin and frail, burst into tears. Her bond was revoked and she was immediately taken into custody, leaving the relatives and friends who had supported her stunned.
“I’m shocked. She’s a wonderful girl. She’s not a monster. She was wonderful to Courtney,” said Bonnie’s sister, Susan Liltz.
It was Susan Liltz who discovered her sister and niece unconscious in their beds that day in May 2015. Authorities said Bonnie Liltz had awoken early that morning in extreme pain. She emptied the powered contents of pill capsules into her daughter’s feeding tube and then ingested some of the medication herself, washing it down with a glass of wine, and left a suicide note.
Courtney, who was 28, died but Bonnie Liltz recovered and was charged with first-degree murder. Last week, she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, involuntary manslaughter, but did not learn until Wednesday whether that admission would involve prison time.
Before her sentencing, several legal experts interviewed by the Tribune said probation would be understandable in the case, given mitigating factors such as Liltz’s own health problems, the fact that she apparently did not take her daughter’s life to make her own easier and the unlikelihood of her re-offending.
“The legislature intentionally made reckless death a probationable offense,” Robert Loeb, a Chicago criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, said last week. “And we should see some probation given for deaths under some cases. This sounds like the case.”
But Stephen Drake, a research analyst with the disabled rights group Not Dead Yet, said the Liltz case was yet another example of a disturbing trend: When parents kill a disabled child, the parents are often treated sympathetically by society, the courts and the media, while the victim is virtually forgotten, he said.
“It’s almost a sainthood thing: ‘This mother took care of someone no one else would want in her home, so maybe we should go gentler on her,'” Drake said. “In order to treat a perpetrator more gently than other perpetrators, we have to devalue the victim.”
Drake said he was “frankly disgusted” that the prosecutors in the case recommended probation.
“It sends out a message that lives of disabled people are not that valuable,” he said. “We put high penalties on a murderer because we send a message that we value life.”
Drake also noted that a four-year prison sentence is still relatively light for a homicide case. Liltz, 56, could have received up to 14 years in prison for the manslaughter conviction. Had she been convicted of the original charge of first-degree murder, a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years would apply.
Nonetheless, her attorney, Thomas Glasgow, said he will file a motion seeking reconsideration of the sentence.
He said Liltz, in theory, could seek to take back her guilty plea. But Glasgow said that’s unlikely because then she could be sent to trial for first-degree murder and would risk a stiffer sentence.
Courtney had cerebral palsy and could not talk, walk or care for herself. Bonnie Liltz’s supporters, including her elderly parents and those at Courtney’s former school and day program, have described Bonnie as a devoted and loving advocate for her daughter.
Liltz’s supporters also had appealed to the court to grant her probation, saying she would not survive a prison term because of her health woes, which include chronic bowel and bladder problems that resulted from treatment she received decades ago for ovarian cancer. In 2012, she was hospitalized for skin cancer, her family has said.
During that hospital stay, Courtney was placed in a residential care center, and her mother described in court the horror she felt when she retrieved her daughter and found her unwashed and with a soiled diaper. Bonnie Liltz said she could tell Courtney was upset with her, and the prospect that Courtney might end up in such a place after Bonnie’s death apparently haunted her.
Officials said she left a suicide note that read in part: “I am so sorry to put you all through this but I can’t leave my daughter behind. … If I go first, what will happen to her? I don’t want her to live in an institution for the rest of her life. She is my life.”
Now Bonnie Liltz’s family fears she will die in prison.
“What she did was a terrible thing, no doubt,” said her father, Victor. “But the way things were going, we thought it was going to be probation. … It breaks my heart.”
The judge first hinted that he might go with probation, saying: “Although this court is reluctant to impose probation in a case where someone is killed, each case and each defendant stands on its own evidence.”
He then enumerated the mitigating and aggravating factors in the case. In the latter category, he noted that Liltz’s actions harmed a disabled person, and that it was necessary to hand down a sentence that would deter others from committing such crimes.
George Houde is a freelance reporter.