YAKIMA — Both 4-year-old Nathaniel Denton’s family and his accused killer spoke of their love for the boy, and how his death breaks their hearts.
“If there’s anything I could do to turn back time, I would,” Antoinette Illona Miller, who was fighting back tears, told Yakima County Superior Court Judge Elisabeth Tutsch on Friday.
But Nathaniel’s grandfather demanded that Tutsch ignore a plea deal in Miller’s case and sentence her to the maximum allowed by law.
“The person who was supposed to be watching over him and protecting him was holding him down and doing that to him,” said Rusty Denton Jr. “It’s not right that there was not one tear shed for him” by Miller.
Tutsch sentenced Miller, 28, to 22 years and nine months in prison after Miller entered an Alford plea to second-degree murder and first-degree assault in the 2022 death of Nathaniel, who prosecutors and police say was strangled by Miller.
In return for the plea, prosecutors dropped a second-degree assault charge and four counts of fourth-degree assault. Deputy Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Julia Davis said prosecutors also removed a domestic violence enhancement after finding that Miller and Nathaniel’s father were not married.
Initial police reports incorrectly described Miller as Nathaniel’s stepmother.
The enhancement would have allowed Tutsch to go beyond standard sentencing range.
Davis asked Tutsch to follow the recommendation to sentence Miller to 15 years on the murder charge and seven years and nine months for the first-degree assault, with both sentences running consecutively.
“The nature of this crime is unimaginable,” Davis said. “The impact on this family is tremendous, and the impact on the community members who worked on this case is great.”
While the justice system cannot bring Nathaniel back, Davis said the sentence is equitable for Miller, who was accepting responsibility.
Under an Alford plea, Miller can maintain her innocence while admitting that prosecutors had sufficient evidence to convince a jury to find her guilty. With the Alford plea, Tutsch relied on the probable cause affidavit to determine the facts in the case.
Staff at what is now MultiCare Yakima Memorial Hospital told police that Miller brought the unresponsive boy to the hospital the evening of Jan. 12, 2022, according to a police affidavit. Although hospital workers performed CPR, Nathaniel was pronounced dead a half-hour later.
Hospital staff saw signs of abuse on Nathaniel’s body, and police officers observed bruising on his back, legs, arms, neck and cheeks, as well as signs that he had been strangled, the affidavit said.
Autopsy results from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office showed Nathaniel was strangled to death, and his death has been ruled a homicide.
Miller was arrested after being questioned by police, and the other two children in the home were placed into state protective custody, police said.
Miller initially told police that Nathaniel went unconscious after she had pinched his ears for not listening to her, but when confronted about injuries on his neck, she said she squeezed his neck with both hands before he went unconscious.
At Friday’s hearing, Denton, who described Nathaniel as “a wonderful kid,” said Miller never gave his grandson a chance to survive, as she didn’t perform first aid or call for an ambulance. Instead, she drove him to the hospital along with her own children.
Miller, he said, had not shown any remorse for what happened, which hurt the family.
“There was no reason for this. It was pure rage,” Denton said.
Wynonna Lillie, Miller’s mother, said she didn’t plan on speaking at the hearing but decided to say something after hearing Nathaniel’s family describing her as “a monster.”
“Nathaniel had issues,” Lillie said. “He wasn’t the purest little angel, but he didn’t deserve to die.”
She said she wished she had decided to babysit Nathaniel and her grandchildren that night to help Miller. Lillie implored Tutsch to show mercy and allow Miller to be released sooner.
Miller said she thinks of Nathaniel every day, remembering his smile and his knack for being able to fall asleep almost anywhere. She said she cared for him when he was sick.
Miller said her own childhood had its “ups and downs” including a couple of stints in foster care because of her parents’ alcoholism. She said she had been sexually assaulted, attempted suicide and dropped out of school before eventually graduating from Job Corps as a medical assistant.
“I have forgiven everyone who has betrayed me and wished to see me fail,” Miller said, adding that she planned to continue her education and “build my relationship with Christ. I know that he has a plan for me.”
Aaron Dalan, Miller’s attorney, said Miller’s decision to enter a plea means Nathaniel’s family and the community were spared from having the case go to trial and reliving Nathaniel’s death.
“I’m proud of Ms. Miller realizing that this was the way for this case to be resolved,” Dalan said.
Tutsch agreed to follow the sentencing recommendation, and noted the suffering everyone connected with the case has experienced.
“When harm befalls (a child), it pierces everyone’s heart and everyone feels it,” Tutsch said, adding that will be a burden Miller will carry for the rest of her life.