Judge Torn Over Woman's Sentence, Says It Isn't Clear Whether She Tried to Kill Her Newborn

A woman was sentenced in South Dakota Thursday in a case involving her newborn son's death in 1981, which ended with the judge saying it is still not clear whether the infant's death was intentional or an accident, according to the Associated Press.

Theresa Bentaas, 60, was sentenced to 10 years in state prison, with nine of the years ruled as a suspended sentence, which will likely lead to Bentaas only spending months in prison with the rest of the sentence served under community supervision.

Bentaas had the child in 1981 around the age of 20, while allegedly suffering from "complete pregnancy denial syndrome," meaning she did not mentally recognize her pregnancy until she woke up in the middle of the night experiencing labor pains. She was diagnosed by a psychiatrist during the investigation.

The infant was found outside Feb. 28, 1981, by a group of men who were driving and saw a pile of blankets in a ditch.

An autopsy of the baby determined the death was likely caused because of a failure to secure an airway during its birth and exposure to open air, according to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. A doctor who reviewed the findings while consulting for the defense also concluded the cause of death was not hypothermia.

Judge Bradley Zell said he struggled for weeks to determine the sentence, because he could not determine whether the infant that died over 40 years ago was dead because of complications during the process of childbirth, or if it was abandoned in the ditch where he was found.

Bentaas previously entered an "Alford plea" to the first-degree manslaughter charge she faced, maintaining her innocence but agreeing to a guilty sentence for the prosecution to drop her first- and second-degree murder charges.

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below.

Theresa Bentaas, South Dakota, Infant Death
A March 8, 2019 booking photo released by Minnehaha County, S.D., Jail shows Theresa Rose Bentaas. A South Dakota judge on Thursday sentenced Bentaas to 10 years in the state prison system for her infant son's 1981 death that went unsolved for decades. Minnehaha County Jail/KELO via AP File

"This is a terribly sad and difficult human event which now needs to be brought to conclusion," Zell said, acknowledging that the sentence was likely a bitter pill for both Bentaas' family that had begged for her to go free and community members who had pressed for a strict punishment.

Lawyers defending her maintained that Bentaas had not killed her son, but rather he died soon after a birth that was not expected, even by his mother.

The psychiatrist, Dr. Cara Angelotta of Northwestern University, told the court on a video call that Bentaas described her infant son as "lifeless" and "ghost-like" immediately after his birth, but did not remember other details of that night. She said the shock of the birth could have severely impaired Bentaas' memory.

Lee Litz told the court he was test driving a jeep with several friends on Feb. 28, 1981 when he spotted blankets in a ditch.

"My curiosity got the best of me and I went over to see what it was," he told the court Thursday. "That's when I found Andrew laying there with his back towards me."

Police were unable to find the infant's parents and the case quickly went cold. The baby was buried with a headstone that named him Andrew John Doe.

But nearly three decades later, the curiosity of a Sioux Falls detective, Michael Webber, revived the case. He was moving boxes of case files when he spotted "an old, weathered box" scrawled with the word "murder." It contained cold cases, including the infant's file.

The case intrigued Webber and he started working on it in his spare time.
Webber said he did not initially have much to go on — an "extremely small" case file listing physical evidence that had been destroyed. But in 2009, the infant's body was exhumed for DNA evidence.

Initial searches for a family tree came back void. However, in 2019 — once DNA technology progressed and sampling had become more prevalent — a match was revealed. It soon led detectives to a family tree in the Sioux Falls area. Webber said after police suspected Bentaas as the mother and Dirk Bentaas as the father, they found DNA samples in their trash that confirmed them as the parents.

Bentaas was arrested in 2019. After several delays in her trial, she entered the "Alford plea" in October.

During Thursday's hearing, Bentaas' family begged the judge for a lenient sentence, saying she was a caring mother and grandmother who had carried the secret of her first child's death for years.

Bentaas' daughter, Melissa Pheilmeier, told the court, "Andrew and my mother are victims of their situation, victims of the culture and the stigma of a young, unwed pregnant girl in 1981."