Santa Clara mother who nearly shook infant to death receives sentence

Composite image with background photo taken in March, 2020 by Cody Blowers; overlay booking photo of Nickolle Marie Priest, 29, taken in Washington County, Utah, Aug. 10, 2022 | Booking photo courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff's Office, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A 29-year-old Santa Clara woman facing a felony child abuse charge appeared last week for sentencing in 5th District Court, where both sides gave impassioned pleas – one for prison and the other for probation.

Booking photo of 29-year-old Nickolle Marie Priest, of Santa Clara, taken in Washington County, Utah, Aug. 10, 2022 | Booking photo courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, St. George News

On Aug. 10, the defendant, Nickolle Marie Priest, appeared before District Judge Jeffrey Wilcox for sentencing on one second-degree felony count of child abuse – inflicting serious injury intentionally, a charge the defendant pleaded guilty to in May.

The case was filed following an investigation that opened Jan. 14, 2021, when officers received a report of a 4-month-old admitted to the hospital with intracranial bleeding, or bleeding inside of the skull, as well as bi-lateral retinal hemorrhaging, both of which are injuries consistent with a traumatic head injury.

Through the course of the investigation, detectives spoke to the infant’s treating physicians who said the injuries were the result of a particular type of child abuse, often referred to as “shaken baby syndrome,” the officer noted in the report filed in support of the arrest.

While speaking to the child’s parents, officers learned the baby was reportedly in the care of Priest, the infant’s mother, at their home in Santa Clara on the night the incident reportedly took place.

Authorities say Priest told detectives she was alone with the baby on that night and said the infant continued crying for an extended period of time, which caused her to become frustrated.

At that point, she said she began rocking and bouncing the infant “aggressively” while holding the baby by her chest and not supporting the baby’s head, which caused her head to “thrash around,” according to the report.

Priest told investigators she “wanted the victim to stop crying,” the report states.

The infant’s behavior changed after the incident, which prompted Priest to call a friend who was also a nurse, before taking the baby to the hospital.

Following the interview on Jan. 25, Priest was arrested and booked into jail.

The state speaks for the infant 

During last week’s hearing, Prosecutor Eric Gentry, representing the state, described the case as a “very very heavy – serious matter,” adding that the details of the case fell outside of the standard matrix that was included in the presentence report.

Stock image | Photo by Serr Novik/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George New

Gentry said the victim in this case is the definition of a “defenseless victim.”

“She nearly lost her life at the hands of her own mother – the person who was supposed to protect and nurture her,” he said, adding that it was the responsibility of the state to speak for the infant, who is incapable of speaking for herself.

Gentry called the defendant’s statements included in the presentence report “self-centered” in that she appeared to be more concerned with what was happening to her, as opposed to the injuries inflicted upon the child. Conversely, he said, the child’s father described his devastation over the situation, as well as his efforts on behalf of the baby and shock over what happened.

Right after the incident, the mother noticed that the child’s foot had “an usual twitch,” Gentry said, but instead of taking the infant to the hospital, she called a friend who was a nurse who came over 30 minutes later and advised that the child immediately needed to go to the hospital.

Booking photo of 29-year-old Nickolle Marie Priest, of Santa Clara, taken in Washington County, Utah, Aug. 10, 2022 | Booking photo courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, St. George News

But, Gentry said, it wasn’t until two hours later when the infant’s condition had deteriorated that Priest took the infant to the emergency room, where treating physicians described the injuries as “near fatal” and likely the result of severe head trauma caused by abuse. Gentry said the defendant then told investigators she couldn’t figure out why the infant was having seizures just prior to being taken to the hospital, when in fact the defendant “knew darn well why this child was having seizures – (Priest) had been the cause of it.” 

While the defendant did not intend to cause such severe injuries, he said, she lost control “and it was her 4-month-old daughter who paid the price – nearly the ultimate price.”

Without medical intervention, the child would have been dead, he said, adding that the delay in taking the infant to the hospital only made things worse. 

“And, this child is not out of the woods yet,” Gentry said, adding that as far as the long-term effects go, it is too early to tell, “and what lies ahead for the baby is still unknown.”

Gentry said it was the opinion of the infant’s treating physicians that if the baby is returned to the previous environment without protection, she would likely face the risk of “repeated and escalating injury or possibly even death.” 

‘Model life’

Also addressing the court, Daniel Tobler, Priest’s defense attorney, said his client served in the Navy, moved to Utah from Reno, Nevada, and has not seen either one of her children since her arrest, but would like to be back in her children’s life one day.

Priest has no prior criminal history, he said, “not even a traffic ticket,” and has lived a “model life” prior to the incident that Tobler described as “the absolute moment” in the mother’s life.

Priest is not the same person as she was on that night in January, he added and said she has “done everything since then to rectify the situation.”

The attorney said the presentence report deviated from the matrix in terms of sentencing by recommending an upward departure, or longer sentence, and was being looked at differently due to the nature of the crime.

The defendant, “in that moment, after that much stress, again, made a bad decision,” Tobler said.

He said his client took full responsibility for her actions and closed by saying the fact that she’s come forward and pleaded guilty to the charge was something that should be something considered by the court. He also called her a “model defendant” for her compliance with all pretrial requirements. 

Many letters were sent to the court on behalf of Priest that referred to her as being a hard worker and dedicated to helping others and putting others first, Tobler added.

Ultimately, Tobler asked that his client be sentenced to probation.

The defendant’s ‘huge mistake’

Priest, who has not been allowed to see her children since the arrest, told the court she did not mean to hurt her daughter and made a “huge mistake” due to being overtaken by frustration on the night of the incident. She said she took her daughter to the emergency room as soon as her symptoms began to worsen.

“I have taken full responsibility of what happened to my daughter and have prayed for her every day since,” she said.

2020 file photo for illustrative purposes only of District Judge Jeffrey C. Wilcox in 5th District Court, St. George, Utah, Aug. 25, 2020 | Photo by Ron Chaffin, St. George News

Lifetime of regret 

Prior to handing down the sentence, Wilcox commented on the sentence in the case, saying “this may be the toughest thing that I’ve ever been involved in” and described the probable statement as “agonizing” to read. 

“What you did to your child was reprehensible,” Wilcox said to Priest.

He said it was clear why Priest delayed taking her child to the hospital.

“You understood though, that what you did would result in what’s ultimately happening here today,” he said, referring to the sentence he would soon impose. 

Wilcox noted on the defendant’s time serving the country in the military and that prior to the incident, Priest appeared to be successful in life and had no prior criminal record.

Nonetheless, he said, “People who do this to children should not be allowed to be around children,” adding that it was the responsibility of the state to protect its children. 

To that end, the judge sentenced Priest to serve one year at Purgatory Correctional Facility in Washington County. Upon release, the defendant will be placed on three years’ probation. She was also ordered to pay approximately $11,400 in restitution and is prohibited from having any contact with the infant or any other children.

The real punishment, Wilcox said, is that Priest will likely spend the rest of her life “knowing that she almost killed her child.”

The order of commitment was signed during the hearing and Priest was booked into Purgatory Correctional Facility to serve her sentence.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!