Updated February 27, 2020 - 3:09 pm
A Henderson man was sentenced Thursday to life in prison for beating his 3-year-old daughter to death in 2016.
Justin Bennett, 26, pleaded guilty in January to murder and 31 counts of child abuse after prosecutors said he tortured his three young daughters for about 18 months, leading to the death of a 3-year-old girl identified as “Abygaile B.” in court documents.
Prosecutors initially sought the death penalty but made a plea deal with Bennett.
“Where was the deal for Abby?” the girl’s aunt, Kerri Andersen, asked District Judge David Barker before he handed down Bennett’s sentence. “Why wasn’t she given a way out? Where was her escape from her death penalty?”
In the 36 hours leading up to Abygaile’s death, she suffered a broken back, three broken ribs and severe blunt-force trauma to her chest that tore the right atrium of her heart.
Bennett’s 2017 indictment details more abuse, stating that Bennett would hit and kick the girls, throw them against a wall, force feed them hot foods, cover their mouths and plug their noses. In one instance, court documents state, Bennett sliced open one girl’s unhealed head wound.
When asked if he had anything to say before the sentencing, Bennett said, “This wasn’t supposed to happen. I’m sorry.”
Bennett will be eligible for parole after 50 years. He also was ordered to pay $5,000 in restitution to the state Victims of Crime fund.
Family members refused to say Bennett’s name in their testimony, referring to him only as “the defendant.”
Bernadine and Kenneth Morimoto, Abygaile’s grandparents, described Bennett as manipulative and said he “sweet-talked” his way out of a number of abuse investigations before the girl’s death.
He threatened to kill his wife, Korie Morimoto, and other members of her family if she told anyone about the abuse, both grandparents said.
Through the testimony, Bennett hung his head and rocked back and forth. He fidgeted, and clenched his jaw or shook his shoulders when family members mentioned him in testimony.
In a letter written by Kenneth Morimoto, he said that his daughter tried asking Bennett’s mother, Sherry Morse, for help. Morse told her that she wouldn’t be beaten if she didn’t upset Bennett, the letter said.
“It was like it was her fault that she got abused because she got the defendant mad,” the letter states. “Unbelievable.”
Morse has been indicted on six counts of child abuse and has pleaded not guilty. Her next court date is set for April.
Korie Morimoto also faced charges initially, but they were later dropped. She secretly filmed Bennett’s abuse of the girls and turned over more than 20 videos to police, some before Abygaile’s death. She wasn’t present at the sentencing, having enlisted in the Air Force.
His other daughters, who were 2 and 4 at the time, survived and were placed in their grandparents’ custody. The girls are still too young to articulate the abuse they suffered, family members said, but testimony detailed their lingering terror.
Still living in fear
The last time Bernadine and Kenneth Morimoto saw Abygaile alive, they told the judge, she and her sisters begged their grandparents not to send them home to their parents. They said the girls panicked in the car as soon as they realized where they were going.
“They recognized that road and all three of them started screaming and kicking and crying, and begging me, ‘Please mama, please, I don’t want to go, please. I promise I’ll be good,’” Bernadine Morimoto said.
Last year, the county reached a $100,000 settlement with the Bernadine Morimoto, who claimed in a lawsuit that county welfare officials botched the handling of their Child Protective Services case by delegating it to a contractor who was only equipped to handle “low-priority” cases.
The two surviving girls are in therapy, Bernadine Morimoto said, and the oldest still wakes up screaming after nightmares about Bennett and his mother. She said the girls still run and hide when they hear people at the front door and don’t talk much about the abuse for fear that Bennett or his mother will still punish them.
The child abuse investigation revealed Bennett had forced mustard into his daughters’ mouths when they lied and made them take cold showers as punishment, Henderson police wrote in a report at the time of Bennett’s arrest. But the Child Protective Services found there was no present or impending danger to the girls and recommended both parents take parenting classes.
Bennett completed only one of the classes in April 2016, less than three months before Abygaile’s death.
When the girls drew on the walls in their grandparents’ home, Bernadine Morimoto couldn’t bring herself to punish them. She said they drew a set of prison bars with a large “X” through it.
“I felt that kind of helped them to feel safe, knowing he’s behind bars,” she said. “And I didn’t care. I left it.”