Khalil Wimes had thrived with relatives who raised him until age 3, but weighed just 29 pounds when he died last year.
Tina Cuffie and Latiff Hadi, formerly Floyd Wimes, had won him back in 2009 after losing custody of five young children. Cuffie had 11 children in all, but they were all grown or in protective custody when Khalil moved in to their squalid apartment.
"For the life of me, I cannot imagine why you chose to get Khalil back, other than for your own egos," Common Pleas Judge Barbara McDermott told the couple Tuesday.
Khalil is one of a string of Philadelphia children to die of starvation and abuse in recent years, often on the city's watch. More than 1,500 U.S. children die from abuse or neglect each year, according to national data.
McDermott had convicted Cuffie, 45, and Hadi, 52, of third-degree murder in a non-jury trial this fall. Their older children testified that the couple had locked Khalil in his room without food; beat him for not calling Cuffie "mother," or for his frequent vomiting; and made him run laps as punishment, even the day before he died.
All the while, they indulged a daughter born after him. While she went to preschool, they home-schooled Khalil and refused to let relatives see him, including the distant cousin who first raised him.
Alicia Nixon James is tortured by thoughts that Khalil was "feeling hopeless and scared and mad at me for not coming back for him."
"I'm just hoping he forgave me if he thinks I deliberately left him somewhere that wasn't good for him," James testified Tuesday.
Her mother, LaReine Nixon, called the boy "a sacrificial lamb" in a system that "was well aware of the history of these two people."
McDermott, though, said the city's Department of Human Services was not on trial.
Khalil was not under the department's care, but a city social worker had seen him eight times during the couple's supervised visits with two of their other children, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last year. The social worker voiced concerns, but took no action, the newspaper reported. Khalil, who had been voluntarily surrendered, was allowed to return home because the parents had been off drugs, had an apartment and had completed a parenting class, the newspaper said.
The adult siblings who later visited the home said they urged their parents to get the boy medical help, to no avail.
Ironically, Hadi worked in home health during that time, making sure that high-risk patients got medical needed medical care. Prosecutors believe he and his wife were afraid to trigger alarms that would have cost them custody not only of Khalil, but of his cherished younger sister.
"This is really akin to a crime against humanity," First Assistant District Attorney Ed McCann argued Tuesday in court. "This was the prolonged torture of a child."
Cuffie's defense lawyer, Michael Farrell, said it was apparent to everyone that she could not care for a child. He called the death "a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure they placed Khalil, and my client, in."
McDermott sentenced the couple at nearly the top of the sentencing range, given them credit only for sparing a jury the pain of listening to the evidence.
"This is not a day for mercy," she said.