A Victoria woman who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the 2015 killing of her daughter was sentenced Monday to mandatory life in prison, but will be eligibile for parole in less than 10 years.
Kaela Janine Mehl appeared in person Jan. 23 to plead guilty to killing her nearly 18-month-old daughter Charlotte Cunningham. Mehl was released from custody in July 2021 after successfully appealing a 2017 conviction because of juror bias.
Mehl wanted to deprive the Cunningham family the joy of sharing time with Charlotte, Justice Jennifer Power said in her decision.
Life in prison is mandatory for second-degree murder, and the joint submission by defence and Crown counsel agreed to eligibility of parole in 10 years.
An agreed statement of fact, signed by Mehl that morning, outlined how Mehl and Daniel Cunningham married in November 2011, before Charlotte’s birth on March 29, 2014. The marriage broke down in 2015 and the couple was in a tumultuous custody battle over the toddler.
The court heard several recordings of interactions between Mehl and Cunningham during child exchanges, including one where Charlotte is heard in the background. Family in the courtroom offered each other small gestures of condolence at the sound of Charlotte’s voice. Mehl, seated facing the judge, also visibly reacted to the recording of her daughter.
Late on Sept. 15, 2015, or early the next morning, Mehl put zopiclone sleeping pills – prescribed to her mother – in yogurt before feeding it to Charlotte and eating some herself. She had previously done online searches regarding the drug and fatal overdoses.
In the early hours of Sept. 16, she sent an email to Cunningham, his lawyer and other family members, that stated “you can go back to the life you wanted.”
Not long later, paramedics found Mehl unconscious on the floor in the hallway and Charlotte dead in the bed. Despite this, paramedics attempted to revive the toddler, the court heard.
While his parents, Charlotte’s grandparents, had the court read their impact statement, Cunningham spoke in court.
“I will never be a whole person again,” he said. Charlotte had two parents who loved her, and would be living an amazing life right now, he added. “Not a day passes I don’t think about her and miss her.”
Defence lawyer Marilyn Sanford described how Mehl came from a hard-working, loving family with at times a “degree of dysfunction” where family members would cut each other out of their lives. Estrangements would last months or years.
While Charlotte was loved, the pregnancy was not an easy one, including Mehl having panic attacks and chronic sleeping issues. After Charlotte was born, Mehl began to believe her daughter was at risk with the Cunningham family.
While Mehl was surrounded by support, Sanford said, no one challenged her thoughts and those thoughts fed upon themselves and they got worse and worse.
“This night things took a different and absolutely tragic turn and she went down what she describes for me as a hole of despair,” Sanford said. “She never conceptualized this as a plan to kill a child, her child, but rather in her distorted thinking viewed it as escaping the spectre of some imagined peril.”
Sanford relayed a message purportedly from Mehl that her daughter was a loving, kind, affectionate child and an easy baby who rarely cried and was loved by both her parents. “She is terribly missed.”
While Mehl did not have much interaction with the mental health system prior to the night she killed Charlotte, work has been extensive since. From the day she was taken to hospital for treatment of her own overdoes, Mehl was held under the mental health act and spent five months at Royal Jubilee Hospital initially under careful observation with clearly expressed suicidal thoughts.
She was diagnosed with major depressive disorder of moderate severity with elements of post traumatic stress disorder and grief.
With a potential period of parole ineligibility a minimum 10 years maximum 25 years, Power was tasked with ensuring it was in the public’s interest to agree to the minimum.
Power noted that Mehl had no criminal record, was suffering from mentally disordered thinking and has expressed remorse in court and to those who know her best. That remorse appears genuine.
“I deeply regret what I did and I wish that I could understand and seek forgiveness for myself,” Mehl said in a brief statement. “I only hope everyone involved can find a measure of peace.”
From her 2017 conviction, until it was overturned, Mehl was in custody for three years, nine months and 11 days, which will be credited to her time of parole ineligibility.
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