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Frazier found responsible for young daughter’s death

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Glenwood woman guilty of child endangerment causing death

By Joel Stevens, Associate Editor

COUNCIL BLUFFS - Misty Frazier has been found guilty of child endangerment resulting in the death of her daughter after giving the 8-year-old a fatal dose of a powerful antidepressant in 2016.

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Frazier, 34, of Glenwood, had been charged with second-degree murder, child endangerment causing death and distribution of a prescription drug to a minor in the death of her daughter, Kathleen Tafta, on Oct. 19, 2016.

Prosecutors alleged Frazier had been dosing her daughter with amitriptyline several weeks leading up to her death.

Frazier had pled not guilty to all charges.

Her trial began June 26.

Mills County District Court Judge Susan Larson-Christensen handed down her verdict in a Pottawattamie County courtroom Monday. The verdict was moved to Council Bluffs to accommodate the judge’s scheduling.

Frazier’s acquittal in two of the three charges means she will now face sentencing in just one felony charge on Aug. 23 in Mills County District Court. The maximum penalty for child endangerment resulting in death is 50 years in prison. There is no mandatory minimum on sentencing but Mills County Attorney Naeda Elliot said her office would push for the maximum penalty.

Judge Larson-Christensen read from her “findings of fact” in the case for more than 90 minutes prior to rendering her verdict.

The judge’s findings laid out a complex case where multiple witnesses were called and testimony was heard concerning the short life and tragic death of Katie Tafta.

“Katie is the silent witness in this trial,” the judge said.

Throughout her sometimes emotional recitation of the findings of fact, the judge referred to Frazier directly, questioning her actions and treatment of Tafta, calling her recorded interviews with law enforcement “contrived” and “self-serving” and dealings with medical personal “not forthcoming” and “deceptive” the day Tafta died.

Judge Larson-Christensen found there was ample and compelling evidence in finding Frazier guilty of child endangerment causing death, saying Frazier “acted with knowledge that she was creating a substantial risk to Kathleen Tafta’s physical, mental and emotional safety beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“Reasonable doubt,” however, did exist on the charges of second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter and the remaining count of distribution of a prescription drug to a minor. The prosecution, the judge said, could not rule out Tafta had a prescription for amitriptyline or that the 8-year-old was given an unprescribed medication.

Elliott, the Mills County attorney, said after the verdict she felt her team had strong evidence on all three charges but understood the complexities of the case.

“I believe the judge did a very complete and thorough examination of the case although we do clearly view the evidence differently,” Elliott said after the trial. “If you look at the evidence, there’s a pattern of behavior. There was one goal in mind and that was to get rid of Kathleen.”

*   *   *

Frazier was charged last September following an exhaustive 11-month investigation.

Prosecutors alleged that Frazier gave her daughter the amitriptyline, a powerful antidepressant prescribed for depression and sleep disorders, “regularly over a long period of time,” according to court records, to quiet and control the girl. Tafta was diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactivity (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and generalized anxiety.

From the opening day of testimony at trial, Elliott, the Mills County attorney, attempted to establish a pattern that showed years of concerns for Tafta from teachers, social workers and doctors leading up to her death.

Twice in the last five months of Tafta’s life she was rushed to emergency rooms in Omaha and Council Bluffs, respectively. Doctors who treated Tafta in those incidents confirmed on the stand both involved overdoses of prescriptions, namely Haldol, a prescription antipsychotic drug,  and amitriptyline.

In all, the prosecution called more than a dozen witnesses with the court hearing testimony from a medical examiner, several educators, Tafta’s psychiatrist, emergency room doctors, paramedics who treated Katie on the day she died, and Frazier’s father. A pair of audio recordings of Frazier’s interviews with Special Agent Dan Dawson of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation were also played in court.

After playing the 911 call from the Frazier home on the day of Tafta’s death, Iowa State Trooper Rose Ives, who was working as a Glenwood police officer at the time of Tafta’s death, testified, “There had been many, many warning signs that this little girl was in danger and either no one listened or they didn’t realize at the time what was going to happen.”

In early testimony at the trial, Dr. Jonathan Thompson of the Iowa Office of the Medical Examiner, testified that Tafta’s cause of death was amitriptyline toxicity. A toxicology report showed the little girl had over 1,000 nanograms per million of amitriptyline in her system at the time of her death. That amount, according to Thompson, is considered twice the “dangerous toxicity” levels for an adult.

Thompson further concluded Tafta’s toxicology indicated “chronic dosing” of amitriptyline over several weeks.

But while Thompson could determine what killed Tafta he could not determine the how. The manner of death in his report was listed as “undetermined.” It was an uncertainty that would prove crucial for the defense.

Several teachers from the last two schools Tafta attended prior to her death - Carter Lake Elementary  and West Elementary in Glenwood - gave testimony that they had concerns about her well being dating back as far as early 2015.

Several witnesses testified to hearing Frazier disparaging her daughter in her presence, including Dr. Sriramamurthy Ravipati, a child psychiatrist at CHI Health in Council Bluffs, who had treated Tafta for over two years.

Both the psychiatrist and the Frazier/Tafta family doctor told the court neither had ever prescribed Haldol or amitriptyline.

The prosecution could find no records of Tafta ever having been prescribed either medication.

Court testimony revealed James and Cinda Frazier, Misty Frazier’s parents, were both prescribed amitriptyline in 2015. At the time of Tafta’s death, Misty Frazier, along with Tafta and her two other daughters,  lived with Misty’s parents in Glenwood.

Dawson, the DCI agent who investigated the case, noted several contradictions in his recorded interviews with Frazier. In his initial conversation, Frazier admitted giving Tafta amitriptyline but said she stopped months before. But in a second interview, Frazier indicated she gave Tafta 10 milligrams before they moved to Glenwood in September 2016. Tafta later told hospital staff in a Sept. 29 emergency room visit she had given Tafta 150 milligrams a few days earlier.

“This woman, right here, poisoned her daughter, plain and simple,” Elliott said during her closing arguments, referring to Frazier. “Misty had a history of trying to get rid of Kathleen. She finally got rid of Kathleen for good on Oct. 19, 2016.

“She killed her child with malice aforethought.”

After the trial, Elliott said she felt the evidence submitted did support the charge of second degree murder but she conceded, some testimony during the trial challenged the state’s strongest evidence that Frazier “knew exactly what she was doing.”

“For murder in the second degree you don’t need the intent to kill. What you need is malice aforethought, the mindset to set forward some harm,” she said. “That ‘some harm’ is knocking her daughter unconscious (with amitriptyline), no matter what the end result is. I think the evidence is clear in this case for second-degree murder.

“But the judge did a very thorough and complete examination of all the evidence so it’s hard to argue when you hear it from a judge as respectable as Judge Christensen.”

*   *   *

One person who did not testify during the trial was Frazier herself.

Frazier appeared to wipe tears from her face during the findings of fact but looked on passively as the verdict was read.

Frazier declined comment after the verdict.

As Frazier was ushered out of the courtroom by Mills County Sheriff’s deputies, her mother, Cinda Frazier, wiped tears from her eyes and clutched at her daughter’s hand. At one point she shouted, presumably to deputies transporting her daughter, “Get her some McDonald’s on the way.”

Outside the courtroom, James Frazier, Misty’s father, and Cinda, declined interview requests. But when asked if they were happy with the verdict, Cinda replied: “No, because it was an accident. That’s all I can say.”

A key strategy Frazier’s defense attorney, Joseph Reedy, used to punch holes in the state’s second-degree murder case was the medical examiner’s undetermined manner of death and the testimony of Dr. Richard Frederick, a clinical psychologist.

Without a definitive manner of death the state faced a steep bar for proving beyond a reasonable doubt Frazier personally gave Katie the amitriptyline or did so to harm her.

Frederick testified for nearly 90 minutes about a psychological evaluation he conducted of Frazier at the Mills County Jail last October.

Frederick, the lone witness called by the defense, testified Frazier has a functional IQ of 63 and that she suffers from a “mild intellectual disability.”

“She can say things that sound knowledgeable but she doesn’t have comprehension skills,” Frederick testified. “She can assent to things, but she can’t comprehend them.”

Elliott challenged Frederick on his diagnosis in a sometimes-contentious cross-examination, citing a 2002 IQ test conducted by the Social Security Administration that showed Frazier as having a score of 76.

Prosecution witness Dr. Timothy Kockler, a clinical psychologist, also was called by the state to refute the 2017 assessment, testifying Frederick’s conclusion was “subjective” and Frazier’s medical records didn’t indicate any concerns by doctors about an intellectual disability. Kockler, however, did not conduct his own assessment of Frazier.

Elliott doubts the defense will mount an appeal of the guilty verdict.

“I believe that 50 years is a very long time but this is a parolable offense and that’s the problem with this kind of charge,” she said. “This is why, we, the state, prefer charges with mandatory minimums so that we have some guarantee that this person will spend some time in prison for such a horrendous act. We have no idea what the parole board might do in this case.”

When asked if she felt Kathleen received the justice she deserved, Elliott paused, choosing her words carefully.

“I guess we’ll see,” she said. “We think the evidence was more consistent with murder in the second degree. Whether or not or when she gets out is not in our hands.”