BRENTWOOD, N.H. (AP) — A New Hampshire man was sentenced Friday to 15 to 30 years in prison for beating his mentally ill wife to death with a flashlight after he came home to find she had strangled their 4-year-old son with a ribbon and tried to kill their 7-year-old daughter.
Christopher Smeltzer, 39, pleaded guilty to killing Mara Pappalardo, who was hospitalized several times for mental illness. Prosecutors say she was paranoid, obsessed with death and convinced her husband and mother-in-law were plotting to take her children away.
Smeltzer initially was charged with second-degree manslaughter. Prosecutors at his plea hearing in October changed the charge to manslaughter by provocation in deference to the horrific scene that triggered his actions.
The 90-minute sentencing took place in a Rockingham Superior courtroom. There was tension between members of Smeltzer's family and his wife's. And at one point, a member of her family shouted to Smeltzer that God will be the judge of his actions.
Judge Tina Nadeau questioned whether the outcome would have been the same had Smeltzer not used drugs that night, but she acknowledged that he must have had an extreme emotional reaction to what greeted him when he came home. She said nothing she could do or say would lessen the grief for the families.
Nadeau imposed the sentence the state requested, including a provision that five years will be suspended if he earns his college degree and takes anger management classes. With the suspension and credit for time served since his arrest, Smeltzer could be free in nine years.
Adam Roz, a cousin of Pappalardo who was first to speak for the family before the judge imposed the sentence, faulted Smeltzer for leaving his wife alone with their children that night, and said he failed as a father, a husband and human being.
But Roz also spread the blame more widely.
"In my heart, I feel anyone sitting here today should have, could have, but just plain didn't act," Roz said. "For that, we're all guilty of this tragedy."
Senior Assistant Attorney General Jane Young said what happened at the Smeltzer home Nov. 7, 2010 "was simply a tragedy." The voices of the two survivors of that tragedy — Smeltzer and his daughter — were heard publicly for the first time during Friday's sentencing. A tape recording of Mercey reading a letter to the judge was played by her lawyer; the girl did not attend the hearing.
Mercey's young voice hushed the courtroom. "I am mad and sad that my Daddy killed my Mommy and brother Mason," she says on the tape. The girl, who lives with one of her mother's sisters, ends by saying, "Please keep him in jail for the rest of his life."
Young said Mercey's statement contradicts what she said in the days after the attacks and to her counselor.
"There's no evidence we have been able to find that supports her statement today that Mr. Smeltzer killed Mason," Young said. "You heard a reading from an 8-year-old girl who has suffered more trauma than any of us could understand."
Smeltzer said he wished he had a "rewind button" to go back and change what he did, including leaving his delusional wife to do cocaine and smoke crack with his friends. He came home, prosecutors say, to find his son strangled, his daughter dangling off the bed with a scarf wound around her neck and his wife in the throes of a suicide attempt.
"As soon as I saw my son I knew something was very wrong," Smeltzer said, choking with emotion. "I knew he was dead and I lost all control. Enraged, I struck my wife. I did something that was not going to bring my son back."
Smeltzer believed his daughter was dead as well. Prosecutors say toxicology tests confirm he took a large quantity of pills in an effort to take his own life. They say Mercey awakened him the next morning and asked if her mother and brother were breathing, and asked her father to make her some tea.
Young said the girl repeatedly told investigators it was her mother who carried her into the master bedroom and it was her father who removed the scarf from her neck.
Defense attorney John Newman asked the judge to impose a 7 1/2 to 10 year sentence, saying he could think of no greater provocation to manslaughter than Smeltzer picking up his dead son, putting his mouth to his son's mouth only to find it ice cold.
"Mercey is an innocent victim of Chris's actions as well as Mara's actions," Newman said. "Chris is painfully aware his actions were wrong."
Pappaladro's sisters spoke of her passion for nature and reading and dreams of writing children's books one day.
"She believed in God, the saints, the power of prayer and love and even in magic," her sister, Mona Harris, said.