A mother is facing up to 35 years in jail for third-degree murder after the pet python she treated ‘like a puppy’ squeezed her two-year-old daughter to death.
Jaren Hare, 21, and her boyfriend Charles Darnell, 34, went on trial in Florida, two years after they found Hare’s daughter Shaianna dead in her cot in July 2009, with their albino Burmese python, Gypsy, coiled tightly around her and its fangs embedded in her forehead.
Investigators say that the 8ft 6in serpent had not been fed for a month and was kept in a tank at their rural home in Oxford, Florida, with only a duvet thrown over the top, tethered loosely with bungee cords and safety pins, to try to prevent it from escaping.
Prosecutors say that the episode was more than just a macabre accident and that Shaianna died as a result of criminal neglect by the couple.
Though the snake was the ‘instrument of death’, Darnell and Hare were responsible for ensuring the child’s safety but showed ‘reckless disregard’, they assert.
‘Those two adult defendants are responsible for the unlawful death of Shaianna Hare,’ assistant state attorney Peter Magrino told jurors as the trial opened today.
Gypsy had slithered out of her unsecured tank at least five times in the previous four weeks alone, jurors will hear, including once the night before the toddler was killed, when Mr Darnell found the snake squirming along the hallway and popped it back in its tank.
The next morning, he found it wrapped around the little girl’s lifeless body, trying to eat her. He stabbed the reptile several times with a six-inch knife and a meat cleaver to get it off Shaianna, but too late to save her.
‘The baby’s dead. Our stupid snake got out in the middle of the night and strangled the baby,’ he sobbed to an emergency dispatcher after dialling 911.
A post-mortem examination revealed that the little girl died of asphyxiation by the non-venomous python, which kills prey by tightening itself around them until they can no longer breathe.
Friends and family had repeatedly offered to buy more secure quarters for the snake or to look after it themselves, worried that Darnell and Hare – who were unemployed – could not afford to feed it, and concerned for the safety of Shaianna. But their offers were refused.
Its last meal was a squirrel that its owners had found dead in the road.
Legal experts have likened the couple’s failure to keep the snake in a secure enclosure to leaving a loaded firearm lying around for a child to pick up.
But Darnell’s lawyer, Rhiannon Arnold, told the court today that Shaianna’s death was ‘a terrible accident’ and that Gypsy – who Hare had owned since buying her at a flea market for $200 when she was 14 – was a much-loved pet that the couple had no reason to think was a danger, even riding in the front seat of their car with them when they went out.
‘This snake was no different than a family dog. While that could seem strange…some people like cats, some people like dogs. Some people have rabbits, some people have hamsters,’ she said.
Darnell and Hare are both charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter of a child – each of which carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison – and felony child neglect, which is punishable by up to five years. Prosecutors offered them a plea deal that would have capped jail time at ten years, but both rejected it.
The trial before Circuit Judge William Hallman at Sumter County Courthouse in Bushnell, Florida, is expected to last around one week.
Gypsy, who recovered from her wounds, has been in the care of a wildlife centre since the incident. Jurors will be shown photographs of the snake during the trial, which is expected to last one week, but the animal will not be produced in court as evidence.
‘I don’t want a circus,’ prosecutor Peter Magrino told the Orlando Sentinel.
‘The snake’s not on trial here.’