Ann Pettway, 50, had pleaded guilty to kidnapping in February and offered details of the 1987 kidnapping. She said she took a train from her Connecticut home to Harlem Hospital, where she scooped up 3-week-old Carlina White, who had been brought to the emergency room with a high fever.
As part of Pettway's plea bargain, prosecutors recommended 10 to 12½ years in prison. But they raised the suggested sentence to 20 years last week, saying the Probation Department had unearthed new facts about the case that made a stiffer sentence more appropriate. The judge handed down the 12-year sentence Monday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
Prosecutors said it appeared that Pettway, of Raleigh, N.C., kidnapped the ailing infant because she wanted a baby "and constructed a web of lies that denied the child the truth about her family for 23 years."
They said Pettway "brazenly took the daughter from a hospital crib and, when no one stopped her, brought the daughter home with her to Connecticut. If the offense had ended there, in 1987, a lengthy sentence of imprisonment would have been warranted for kidnapping alone. But the offense did not end there. Instead it continued for 23 years."
The government also had challenged her lawyers' contention that she provided a "stable, loving and happy home," saying that Pettway was convicted of five crimes while White was in her custody and had told the Probation Department that she used cocaine from 1983 through 2005 and smoked marijuana every day until she was in her early 30s. It also said White's biological mother had informed the Probation Department that her daughter told her that Pettway once hit her with a shoe so hard that it left an imprint on her face.
As Pettway admitted her guilt, Carlina's birth mother, Joy White, quietly cried in the courtroom gallery. Afterward, she told reporters that she was outraged at the plea bargain and felt a decade in prison would be too light a punishment for the woman who had robbed her so cruelly. Justice, she said, would be one year for every year she was separated from Carlina.
"I've lost 23 years of being with my daughter," she said, adding that those decades were filled with pain and heartache.
During the proceeding, Pettway told the court: "I went to the hospital. I took a child. It was wrong." In a letter to the judge before sentencing, Pettway apologized and said the kidnapping would never have occurred if seeking professional help for mental trauma from her failed pregnancies and being able to discuss family secrets had not been forbidden in her family's home.
"Because of my actions so many lives were hurt," she said in the handwritten letter.
She said she still loves the woman she raised, "a wonderful bright young woman."
"All I can do now is ask forgiveness from her and her parents. It may not sound correct on paper but I am hopelessly SORRY," she wrote. "My action led to such a huge loss for her parents, but there is nothing I can do to right this wrong that I committed."
White said she encountered Pettway at the hospital on the day her daughter disappeared, dressed like a nurse. "She came up to me and said to me, 'Don't cry. Your daughter is going to be OK.'"
The case was solved by Carlina herself.
As she grew up in Connecticut under the name Nejdra Nance, the girl became increasingly suspicious of her own identity. Pettway ultimately told her a part-truth. She admitted that she was someone else's daughter but claimed she had been willingly given away by a drug addict.
Carlina White said she browsed the website of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for clues to her identity. After matching a photo of herself with one on the site, she tracked down her true mother and they reunited in January of 2011. A DNA test confirmed they were mother and child.
Today, they speak every day, Joy White said.
"I love my daughter. She's a beautiful girl," she said, adding that she had kept a picture of her missing baby at her bedside for 23 years.