A Richland County jury convicted Andrea Person on Friday night of killing a 1-year-old child in 1998, rejecting claims her 2007 confession was the result of intimidating interrogation.
Judge Allison Lee sentenced Person, who had no prior criminal record, to 22 years in prison for the death of Zachary Ulengchong.
Person was convicted of homicide by child abuse. The minimum sentence under state law was 20 years. She had faced the possibility of a life sentence.
Person did not react as the clerk read the verdict shortly after 9 p.m., but her family wept softly in the benches behind her, and some eventually had to be escorted from the courtroom.
"I'm sorry," Person stammered into the microphone shortly before her sentencing while sheriff's deputies waited behind her with handcuffs. "I want peace."
Person was operating a day-care business out of her home in 1998 when 1-year-old Zacharydied. The coroner originally attributed Zachary's death to pneumonia, but the deaths of two other children under Person's care in 2001 and 2007 prompted investigators to reopen the case.
Jurors in her trial this week were not told about the other children's deaths.
In April 2007, Person admitted to investigators she had held her hand over Zachary's nose and mouth for 15 to 20 seconds because he was fussy and she wanted him to sleep.
Zachary stopped crying and Person laid him in his crib for 15 to 20 minutes, she said, but found he wasn't breathing when she went back to check on him.
"I should have chosen a different way to handle him. I should not have put my hand over his face. It was not my intent to kill him," Person had told investigators. "I'm tired of holding on to this. It feels good to say it to someone."
Person, 42, attempted to distance herself from those statements during her week-long trial in the Richland County courthouse.
On Friday, jurors heard testimony from a defense witness billed as an expert in false confessions and heard the passionate pleas of attorneys giving their closing arguments.
The defense team, led by Richland County public defenders Doug Strickler and Fielding Pringle, questioned Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, for most of the day.
Kassin, who has co-authored a book and numerous articles about false confessions, told jurors police interrogation methods can often elicit false confessions because the length and intensity of the questioning confuses people and makes them believe they can leave if they tell the officers what they want to hear.
"Common sense to me makes me want to smack my head and say, 'What makes you think if you confess to a crime you can go home,'" Kassin said. "But (the interrogation) leads people to infer leniency."
Kassin said indicators of false confessions include apologizing to a victim or the victim's family, which Person did repeatedly in her statement to investigators. A second indicator is giving incorrect details, a sign Kassin said should raise red flags with investigators.
Strickler seized on those points during his closing argument, pointing out that Person told investigators she was distracted at the time of the child's death on Dec. 2, 1998, because she had just had a hysterectomy.
"Her hysterectomy was Aug. 19, 1999, nine months after the fact. Why is she supplying that," Strickler told the jury. "She walked into a three-detective buzz saw."
But 5th Circuit Solicitor Barney Giese dismissed Kassin's and Person's testimony, telling jurors Person was trying everything to separate herself from that statement.
"Those statements that she made ... are damning. They convict her," Giese told jurors.
Giese made repeated references to Person's education, saying someone who was two courses shy of a psychology degree at UNC Chapel Hill knew what she was doing and would not have been vulnerable enough to give a false confession.
And, Giese said, Person had been interviewed by investigators earlier in the week and had left before confessing.
"Yet now she claims that she didn't think she could leave," Giese said, referring to Person's testimony Thursday.
Judge Lee wrestled with how long to sentence Person, who is married and has two teenage children.
"As to what really happened, no one really knows but Mrs. Person," Lee said during the sentencing. "I still don't believe I have the words to say what I really think or I really feel."
Person still faces homicide by child abuse charges for the deaths of 4-month-old Elijah Brown in 2001 and 2-month-old Michael Harris Walker in 2007.
"We will meet with the other families in a couple of weeks and make a decision on how and when we are going to proceed on those," Deputy 5th Circuit Solicitor John Meadors said after the trial.