Colby Puckett was sentenced to 50 years in prison on Monday by Mills County District Court Judge Greg W. Steensland for the murder of 13-month-old Aliyanna L. May last February.
Puckett, 23, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder Nov. 25. He was initially charged with first-degree murder in the death of Aliyanna but a deal was reached with prosecutors to plead guilty in exchange for the reduced charge. Under Iowa law, second-degree murder carries a mandatory 50-year prison sentence while first degree murder carries a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Puckett will be eligible for parole after serving 70 percent of that sentence, or 35 years. He will be 58 when eligible for parole.
The plea agreement also requires Puckett to pay $150,000 in restitution to May’s family, an additional $9,602.88 as part of the Crime Victim Restitution Program and Puckett is prohibited from contacting Aliyanna’s mother and his former girlfriend, Hannah May.
Mills County Attorney Eric Hansen said Aliyanna’s mother and family supported the plea agreement.
“I am pleased that we were able to come to a resolution and close this case out for our victims and open a new chapter for them,” Hansen said. “There’s no closure, necessarily, but they can move on to the next step in their lives. In that regard, I’m happy with how things went today.”
Cases involving the deaths of children are never easy, Hansen said.
“Any (murder) case, especially with children and having a child of my own, is difficult,” Hansen said. “In this case the level of violence visited on this little girl was particularly disturbing and that’s quite frankly what shocked me the most with this case.”
A tearful Hannah May, Aliyanna’s mother, addressed the court during Monday’s sentencing as Puckett stared straight ahead.
“I cannot forget the image of her in the hospital, bleeding and I can’t do anything,” Hannah May said, her voice cracking with emotion. “It affects me. Everyday I get mad. I can’t look at her picture. I can’t visit her grave because all I want to do is dig her up and be with her. I know you’re sorry and you’re sorry for what you did. But I don’t feel sorry for you. I’m glad she’s getting justice but it doesn’t make up for living without her.”
After Hannah May’s statement, Judge Steensland offered Puckett the opportunity to address the court. After a pause, Puckett replied: “There’s a lot I’d like to say but I know it won’t make a difference. I’m a good person who made a bad mistake. I loved the victim and her family. I didn’t intend for this to happen. Any parent has done something they didn’t intend. My mistake resulted in a death and I will spend the next 35 years and the rest of my life having to live with that.”
Puckett’s attorney, Mike Murphy, said during the hearing his client considers the death of Aliyanna “an accident” but that it’s not an “accident in the eyes of the law.”
“What we had was the death of a child,” Murphy said. “Whether or not you’re playing with the child or do something and the child is hurt, it’s child endangerment. The death of a child elevates that to first-degree murder.”
Two weeks before Puckett was prepared to go to trial, prosecutors approached Murphy about a plea bargain reducing the charges to second-degree murder.
“That was a good deal,” Murphy said. “We entered it. Our problem was he not only confessed but he was on video showing how he shook the baby. There wasn’t a whole lot of room there. The medical evidence was overwhelming. There’s not much else to say. It was a bad case all around.”
Puckett was initially charged with first-degree murder and child endangerment following the events of Feb. 1 when the Mills County 911 Communications Center received a report of an injured baby at 1101 Lincoln Ave. in Pacific Junction. The caller told a dispatcher the baby had fallen out of bed.
The baby was treated at the residence before being transported to an Omaha hospital by medical helicopter.
Aliyanna died Feb. 2.
Puckett was arrested Feb. 8 after an autopsy was performed on the child and a weeklong investigation by the Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI). According to a court document signed by DCI investigator Laura Myers, Puckett, who was babysitting Aliyanna and her two siblings at the time, said in an initial interview with a Mills County Sheriff’s Deputy that the child fell off a bed. After Aliyanna was taken to the hospital and further testing was done, it was determined she had more extensive injuries to her eyes and brain, which in the opinion of the treating physicians, was caused by abusive head trauma and not a fall.
In a subsequent interview with investigators, Puckett admitted his actions would be consistent with the medical findings. He also admitted to calling a third party and not 911 shortly after causing the injuries despite the obvious signs of medical distress exhibited by the 13-month-old.