Defense mitigation specialist testifies of Emile’s ‘tumultuous’ life
OGDEN — Brenda Emile had a secretive and abusive family background complicated by the Romani culture, a mitigation specialist testified Wednesday in the Ogden woman’s aggravated murder sentencing hearing.
James Whitman recommended to 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda that Emile, 28, be given a chance to someday be paroled so she can finally “experience a period of stability in her life.”
Whitman was called to testify as Emile’s defense opened her side of the case at her weeklong sentencing hearing. She pleaded guilty to first-degree felony aggravated murder last summer, thereby avoiding the death penalty for the torture and starvation death of her daughter, Angelina Costello, 3, on July 7, 2017.
By state law, DiReda will have two choices of sentence: 25 years to life in prison and or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
As a defense mitigation specialist, Whitman said he constructed a report of Emile’s social history with the hope of providing insight into her background that may inform the court in the sentencing process.
Her life has been “very tumultuous,” as she was the only girl in a Romani family with severe dysfunction and strictly defined gender roles — the women responsible for all household and many parenting matters, Whitman said.
“Her parents are severely mentally ill as well as drug addicts,” Whitman said. “She witnessed her father cut himself, bang his head on the wall and one time set his hair on fire.”
The father also abused Emile and her mother, Whitman said. “He tried to cut (her) head off with a license plate,” Whitman said, referring to Emile’s mother. “He kicked Brenda, choked her and cut off her hair.”
Emile did not attend school after the second grade, not unusual in Romani families, and her English speaking and writing skills are self-taught, Whitman said.
Emile eventually looked to marry another Romani “to extricate herself from her family.” Her marriage to Miller Costello, a member of a different Romani tribe, occurred in 2011. Because she was not of Miller’s tribe, “she felt she wasn’t very accepted,” Whitman testified. Then Costello began using drugs heavily, he said.
Emile also became addicted to drugs after complications from the birth of their third child in 2016, Angelina’s younger sister, Whitman said.
Costello, 30, Angelina’s father, also has pleaded guilty. Costello and Emile have placed blame on one another for Angelina’s death, although prosecutors say there is ample evidence that they both participated.
Whitman said Emile deserves to be spared from a life prison term because she is remorseful and she will be able to achieve personal development while in prison, away from the destructive ties that have influenced her.
Prosecutor Branden Miles and DiReda expressed skepticism about the validity of Emile’s claimed past influences.
Miles asked Whitman if he had verified her claims of being abused. He said no, that his report was based mostly on several long meetings he has had with Emile since 2018.
Whitman said he did have documentation that Emile sought medical care for Angelina in Montana after her birth in 2014 and in Colorado when she had an illness in 2015.
DiReda referred to Whitman’s description of Emile’s being schooled in the Romani cultural aspects of secretiveness, avoidance of outside influences, and defrauding and stealing from others. Whitman had told the story of how Emile’s parents scammed a man in Rock Springs, Wyoming, getting him to buy Emile’s mother a pickup truck as part of a romance ruse.
DiReda recently scolded Emile in court, denying her request to withdraw her guilty plea after she made an unsubstantiated claim that Costello had threatened to kill their other two children if she did not plead guilty.
“How will anyone ever believe that she is remorseful,” DiReda asked on Wednesday, to which Whitman said Emile deserves a chance to have “a progression” to improve her life while in prison.
On Monday and Tuesday, prosecution witnesses detailed the extreme physical and emotional abuse and the fatal starvation that Angelina endured over the last 1 ½ years of her life.
Another defense witness will be called when the sentencing resumes Friday.