Warning: This story includes graphic details that may be distressing.
The mother who admitted to giving her 17-month-old daughter a lethal dose of sleeping pills and smothering her with a pillow in 2015 was sentenced to life in prison on Monday.
Kaela Mehl was convicted of second-degree murder after an initial criminal trial found her guilty of first-degree murder.
Under Canada’s Criminal Code, first-degree murder is when it is planned and deliberate; if it is contracted; if a peace officer is murdered; if the murder occurs while the person is being hijacked, sexually assaulted, or kidnapped; if there was criminal harassment; if it was part of terrorist activity; if it was part of a criminal organization; or if there was intimidation.
Second-degree murder is all other murders that do not fall under the category of first-degree.
At Monday’s sentencing, the Victoria Supreme courtroom heard the murder of her daughter Charlotte Cunningham was the result of Mehl’s growing mental illness and a bitter divorce between Mehl and her ex-husband Daniel Cunningham.
A statement by Cunningham, Charlotte’s father, says they are grateful the court case is over.
“This isn’t the exact outcome we hoped for but we respect the decision of the court and the sentence imposed and have, as a family, no further comment on those matters,” the statement says. “We are relieved that this phase is over. We thank crown council [sic] for their efforts and for all they’ve done.”
Mehl’s first-degree murder conviction was overturned in 2021 after Mehl’s new lawyer successfully argued in the B.C. Court of Appeal that her original lawyers failed to give her a reasonable defence and that a juror was biased toward Mehl’s ex-husband.
Monday’s decision is the finale of criminal proceedings that spanned six years.
The conviction of Mehl, 39, comes eight years after Charlotte’s death. She was sentenced to life in prison with no eligibility for parole for 10 years.
Mehl tried to kill herself with the same sleeping pill as her daughter. While in hospital Mehl allegedly said to nurses: “I was supposed to go with Charlotte…I have nothing to live for. I was not supposed to wake up. I have nothing to live for.”
Mehl has no memory of this.
— Kori Sidaway (@korisidaway) January 23, 2023
In September 2015, Mehl gave her daughter Charlotte the lethal dose of sleeping pills and smothered her with a pillow before trying to end her own life with the same sleeping pills.
The court heard that Mehl allegedly said to nurses: “I was supposed to go with Charlotte…I have nothing to live for. I was not supposed to wake up. I have nothing to live for.”
Mehl says she has no memory of saying those words.
Prior to taking the sleeping pills, she sent her ex-husband, members of his family, and their lawyers an email blaming the Cunningham family and saying goodbye, which prompted her ex-husband to call for a wellness check.
Charlotte’s murder came after a very hostile divorce between Mehl and Cunningham where Mehl believed, with no evidence, Cunningham and his family were abusing alcohol around Charlotte.
Following the divorce, Mehl took audio recordings of Charlotte’s custody handoffs between the couple where she demanded down-to-the-minute visitation and refused to tell Cunningham what Charlotte had eaten, among other things.
Emotional victim impact statements were read Monday by Crown council on behalf of Cunningham’s parents, who were grandparents to Charlotte.
In it they told Mehl she stole a “lively, smart, and generally marvelous child” away from those who loved her.
“We are recovering from you…we will never forgive you for the damage you caused,” they said in court, addressing Mehl, adding they hoped the murder would weigh heavily on her conscience.
Charlotte’s aunt tearfully noted that Charlotte would be turning nine soon if she wasn’t murdered, adding she still doesn’t know how she’ll explain to her own children how their cousin died.
Finally, Cunningham, Charlotte’s father, took the stand to deliver a victim impact statement for a second time, saying he continues to be “devastated” over Charlotte’s loss.
“She was all I wanted in life,” he said. “I wear her on my hand and think of her every single day…I try to live every day to honour her,” said Daniel, who had her ashes made into a diamond he wears on a ring.
He said he hopes Mehl will one day leave prison less angry so she can enjoy the rest of her life.
The judge called Charlotte’s murder “tragic”, “inexplicable” and “an extreme breach of trust”, saying Mehl wanted to “deprive the Cunningham family the joy of sharing Charlotte.”
“I deeply regret what I did. I wish I could undo what has been done. I do not seek forgiveness for myself. I only hope the people involved can find a measure of peace,” Mehl said in court.
-With files from CHEK’s Kori Sidaway