BOWLING GREEN — Calling it “taco time,” Nathan Brenner used to wrap his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter in a blanket so tightly, she couldn’t move and sometimes couldn’t breathe.
Prosecutors said in court Monday that Brenner caused other injuries to young Emma Zehnpfennig between Nov. 1, 2011, and Feb. 22, 2012. She was left in the bathtub where she fell and inhaled water. She suffered cigarette burns on the inside of her foot and on the back of her head, and, finally, the toddler suffered nonaccidental blunt-force trauma to the head that ended her young life.
Gwen Howe-Gebers, chief assistant Wood County prosecutor, said Brenner told hospital personnel that Emma had choked on food. An autopsy would find otherwise.
On Monday, Brenner, 36, of Liberty Center, Ohio, entered Alford pleas to two felony counts of endangering children for the injuries that led to Emma’s death on March 1, 2012. In an Alford plea, a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges enough evidence exists for a conviction.
Wood County Common Pleas Judge Robert Pollex accepted his pleas, found him guilty, and imposed a sentence stipulated in the plea agreement: 11 years in prison — the maximum sentence for the two charges.
When asked if he’d like to make a statement, Brenner replied, “No, your Honor.” His attorney, Bill Stephenson, told the court the defense disagreed with many of the state’s allegations and had expert witnesses prepared to challenge the evidence.
“The defense always hotly contested and disputed the coroner’s findings with its own experts,” he said, adding that one defense expert “was adamant that there was no blunt-force trauma. It was completely misread.”
Ms. Howe-Gebers said hospital personnel would have testified that when Emma was brought to the hospital Feb. 22, 2012, “she appeared blue, limp, and, as they would have described, already dead.” She was on life support at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center for seven days before she died.
Brenner, who was indicted by a Wood County grand jury in May, 2012, on charges of murder, involuntary manslaughter, and two counts of endangering children, was to have gone on trial Jan. 6. Judge Pollex dismissed the murder and manslaughter charges Monday as part of the plea agreement.
Wood County Prosecutor Paul Dobson said afterward that his office extended the plea agreement because of evidentiary concerns and differing expert opinions that could have led a jury to acquit Brenner. In this and similar cases, he said, it can be difficult to prove who inflicted the injuries when two adults were present in the house.
“The main thrust of the state’s position was that by both the defendant’s and the mother’s initial statements, Mom was asleep and he was in sole charge of the child at the time that the injury was sustained,” Mr. Dobson said. “Experts disagreeing over when the debilitating injury was sustained could have caused a jury to have a serious question as to whether he was guilty of the offense or not.”
The plea agreement was not what the victim’s family had hoped for, Mr. Dobson said.
“Having justice for Emma — that was the most important thing that we all wanted,” he said. “Whenever there’s a death of a child involved, sentences of 10 years, 11 years — they’re not enough to justify that. Unfortunately, it’s more justice than a not-guilty verdict would have provided.”
The victim’s grandfather — the only family member in court Monday — did not make a statement to the court and declined to comment afterward.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-213-2134.