Idaho couple got no jail for starving child, who had heart attack. What happened in court?
In the fall of 2022, a then-10-year-old girl was handpicked by her coach to shoot the winning soccer goal in a shootout, sending her team to the championship.
“She’s a force to be reckoned with on the field,” her now-adoptive mother, Kristin, told the Idaho Statesman by phone.
Ada County Deputy Prosecutor Daniel Dinger said it’s lucky that the girl is even alive.
The girl, now 11, suffered a heart attack in 2017 — at the age of 5 — after her then-adoptive parents Gwendalyn and Byron Buthman malnourished and injured her. The girl, referred to only as E.B. in court documents, was forced to eat a vegetable protein powder, isolated from the rest of her family and made to sleep in a laundry room, sometimes without a mattress, according to court records.
“I certainly do not think that it is in any way an exaggeration to suggest that this was nearly a homicide,” Dinger said during the sentencing, “that (E.B.) could have died as a result of the defendant’s conduct.”
The Buthmans were convicted by a 12-person jury of two felonies in June: injury to a child and an enhancement of infliction of great bodily injury. They were also each found guilty of a misdemeanor count of injury to a child.
During a two-hourlong hearing Tuesday at the Ada County Courthouse, 4th District Senior Judge Darla Williamson deliberated on whether to place the Kuna couple on probation or send them to jail or prison for what she called “probably the most difficult” sentencing. Williamson chose probation.
Kristin in her statement compared her daughter’s case to the death of Robert Manwill, an 8-year-old boy who was beaten and tortured to death by his mother’s boyfriend, Daniel Ehrlick Jr., in 2009. The case stuck out to her because her father was the Ada County coroner who performed the autopsy on Robert. Williamson presided over the case and sentenced Ehrlick to life in prison.
“At the end of the day, you have a choice to make, and I hope that you make the right choice,” Kristin told the judge.
Child ‘was suffering,’ prosecutor says
In an over 20-minute deliberation, Williamson pointed to the fact that while sometimes witnesses in jury trials can exaggerate things, there are three certain facts. Williamson retired in 2011 but will occasionally preside over cases as a senior judge.
The girl, who was around 3 to 6 years old during the abuse that lasted years, was malnourished and starved before she had a heart attack, according to a news release from the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office. Williamson said she wasn’t convinced that the Buthmans were intentionally trying to starve E.B.
Williamson ultimately placed the Buthmans on probation for four years, skirting any additional jail time. The judge rationalized that any additional time incarcerated could negatively impact their other four adoptive children, and that they’ve already suffered “substantial penalties” outside of the judicial system.
The probation went against the prosecution’s recommendation. Dinger asked Williamson to sentence the Buthmans to at least five years in prison before being eligible for parole, with an additional 15 years spent either in prison, on parole or both.
“These are two people who should have known — and should have been able to see, and clearly were able to see — that this a child who is suffering,” Dinger said during the sentencing. “This is a child who is getting thinner and thinner. This is a child whose weight is not growing the way that it should be.”
The Buthmans were also placed on a withheld judgment, which means that they can ask the court to vacate their convictions if they follow the terms of their probation. The decision by Williamson garnered gasps from the courtroom.
The Buthmans’ attorney Matthew Williams said that even with probation and the withheld judgment, Gwendalyn and Byron Buthman may not be able to return to their old jobs. Byron Buthman lost his job as a nurse in a neonatal intensive care unit, and Gwendalyn Buthman’s teaching certificate is up in the air.
“There’s a good chance that she will never be able to get that back,” Williams said regarding Gwendalyn Buthman’s teaching certification.
He added that Byron Buthman could lose his current job as a trucker because he travels out of state for work, which might clash with the terms of his probation. Williams didn’t respond to a request for comment from the Statesman on Friday.
Williamson said she didn’t see how prison time was necessary, and that the only reason would be to send a message to the public that “people who do this sort of this thing go to prison.” She added that the Buthmans are not the typical criminals that she sees in court.
“This experience for them would be devastating,” Williamson said.
She said she was “confident the Buthmans will stay out of trouble,” and that they won’t be able to foster other children and “appear to be” taking care of their four other children.
E.B.’s mother expressed her disappointment with Williamson’s sentence and raised concerns about the Buthmans’ other children.
“The reality of the outcome — that the judge sentenced them — is going to continue to put the four children that they are taking care of at risk,” Kristin told the Statesman by phone.
‘Where are my siblings going to go?’
In October 2017 — on a cold winter day — Gwendalyn Buthman forced 5-year-old E.B. to go outside without shoes or pants after she soiled her diaper, Dawn Cliff, a habilitative interventionist who worked with E.B. from September 2017 to February 2018, testified during the jury trial.
Cliff told the jury in June that she looked outside through a window and saw that E.B. was lying in the grass. Cliff said she ran outside and began to call for E.B., but the girl wasn’t responding.
She then called for Gwendalyn Buthman, who took E.B. upstairs and gave her a bath, ran to the store to buy a thermometer, and grabbed their next-door neighbor, who was an emergency room physician, Cliff said.
It would take over 45 minutes of CPR, seven doses of epinephrine, and three doses of atropine to revive and treat E.B. that day, Kristin said in court. She added the then-5-year-old’s body temperature was 89 degrees and she had to be intubated.
Dinger said E.B. was unresponsive and without a pulse, and her pupils were fixed and dilated.
“I remember Gwen and Byron rushing to the hospital,” E.B. testified in June about what she remembers about her heart attack. “I remember me in front of the swing set not doing anything, just staring, not moving.”
Throughout Dinger’s arguments, Williamson interrupted him several times to ask why the 13 doctors who were assigned to E.B.’s care didn’t do more to intervene and contact child protective services.
“I can see where the court is concerned, but I think that takes away from why are really here and why (E.B.) was really there,” Dinger said in response to the judge’s comments. “(E.B.) didn’t show up at the hospital because of what the doctors did. (E.B.) showed up at the hospital because these two defendants deprived her of food.”
Williamson also asked Dinger to clarify whether the doctors specifically told the Buthmans that she had a heart attack because of starvation. Dinger said the prosecution’s expert witness — Dr. Matthew Cox, a St. Luke’s child abuse pediatrics specialist — made that conclusion based on the medical records.
Dinger said that E.B. weighed the same amount at age 5 as she did at age 2, and that the medical records noted “significant weight issues” and “muscle wasting.” He added that the Buthmans weren’t being honest with doctors about the amount of food E.B. was consuming. Williams disagreed.
Williams said that E.B. “simply wasn’t gaining weight,” and that the Buthmans were working with a nutritionist. He also disagreed with comments by the prosecution that the Buthmans aren’t concerned about E.B., and said that they are “devastated” that she no longer lives with them.
“No, (E.B.) didn’t die, but when your child is taken away from you by the state and given to somebody else, it’s almost like she does,” Williams said. “She’s still alive but she’s dead to you now.”
In a nine-minute statement, Gwendalyn Buthman, through sobs, described raising her siblings, her volunteer efforts and her work as an educator. She said she wasn’t able to have children, which is why they chose to adopt.
“My children are my pride and joy,” she said, “I love them very much.”
Kristin said that aside from soccer, E.B. does quite a few other sports. The 11-year-old athlete loves going to the movies, getting her hair done, giving out hugs and eating cheese, her mother said in her statement.
E.B. in a statement read Tuesday by Ada County Deputy Prosecutor Katelyn Farley, asked Williamson to send the Buthmans to jail, though she had concerns about what would happen to her four siblings.
“I would like Gwen and Byron to go to jail because I don’t want what they did to me to happen to anybody else, especially my siblings,” Farley said, reading the statement on E.B.’s behalf. “When they go to jail, where are my siblings going to go?”