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Sioux Falls woman gets at least 2 months in prison for role in newborn son's 1981 death

Judge Bradley Zell said he'd suspend 9 of the 10 years sentenced to 60-year-old Theresa Bentaas, who filed a plea admitting evidence but no guilt to a charge of first-degree manslaughter. In 1981, then-19, Bentaas left her newborn baby boy, whom she birthed at home in her bedroom without her family's knowledge, in a Sioux Falls ditch.

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A 60-year-old Sioux Falls woman will serve at least 60 days in prison for her role in the death of her newborn son 40 years ago.

Theresa Bentaas cannot be liable for homicide, 2nd Judicial Circuit Judge Bradley Zell ruled Thursday, Dec. 2, in a Minnehaha County courtroom. Zell said it's not clear her newborn son, laid in a blanket in a Sioux Falls ditch in February of 1981, was killed by exposure to harsh winter weather. The judge said little, in fact, is known about the events of the newborn after being born alive in the then-19-year-old Bentaas' bedroom.

"This court has sat in over 30 murder cases during its career and never has had a case where the question was whether or not there was a killing," opined Zell.

Instead, the Sioux Falls judge sentenced Bentaas, who'd previously entered an "Alford plea" to a felony charge of first-degree manslaughter, to 10 years in prison with nine years suspended and 73 days counted. Bentaas will be able to apply for parole after 25% -- or roughly two months -- of her term in the women's prison in Pierre.

The state prosecutor had requested 40 years in prison for Bentaas, but Zell noted that since 1981, Bentaas had raised two children with the newborn boy's biological father, been gainfully employed, and never run afoul of the law.

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The case had been resurrected following new DNA evidence in 2009. At the time of the 1981 birth, neither Bentaas' mother or stepfather -- or the child's biological father -- knew she was pregnant, said the judge.

A second birth in her bedroom in 1986, for example, only became known to her parents when they overheard the sound of a newborn crying.

In his statement, Zell dinged "sensational" media reports for drumming up public sentiment to punish Bentaas as a "vile" criminal.

"Unlike 'Dragnet' and relying upon 'just the facts,' the reporting [in this case] has not focused on just the facts but rather has drawn the attention of the public due to the focus on a possible, alternative cause of death unsupported by any facts," said Zell, "that a live baby was taken by his mother and laid in ditch in the cold of winter and left to die due to exposure to the harsh South Dakota winter and all the horrible images inferred there from."

Zell said it isn't a crime to give birth to a child without medical intervention, though he noted it's unwise. He added there's no evidence that Bentaas' disposing of the newborn in a ditch caused his death.

Bentaas will report to jail for escort to prison on January 15.

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