Glendive woman convicted in child’s death

Hunter Herbaugh
Sunday, September 13, 2020
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Ashley Howard’s booking photo from 2018

Ashley Maria Howard was found guilty of negligent homicide in the 2018 death of her son on August 18.

The crime was committed in Glendive but due to significant public attention and outcry in the case, the venue was moved to Eighth Judicial District Court in Cascade County to ensure a fair trial.

The homicide charges Howard was convicted of stem from an investigation into the death of her 2-year-old son, Caleb Hopkins. According to the charging document, Hopkins was brought to Glendive Medical Center on June 26, 2018 with a body temperature of 107 degrees. He was subse quently life flighted to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Billings where he stayed until he was pronounced dead on June 28. According to pathologist Dr. Robert Kurtzman in Billings, the cause of death was listed as hyperthermia caused by overheating.

Due to the change of venue, the Ranger-Review could not view the trial directly and due to a months long backlog of transcript requests, a verbatim transcript is not readily available, according to Cascade County District Court Reporter Wendy Fiske.

The trial began at 9 a.m. on August 18 and lasted throughout the day. While Howard and her attorneys, the judge and the prosecution were all present in the courtroom, the jury and at least one witness were all present via Zoom.

The trial moved quickly, with the defense resting at 2:24 p.m. that afternoon. The prosecution rested just a little over an hour later. Witnesses included experts from the Montana State Crime Lab and the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office. After some discussion regarding a witness outside of the presence of the jury, closing arguments began at 4:16 p.m. Without the verbatim transcripts, it is unclear what exactly the discussion was about. By 5:27, the jury left to consider their determination and returned in just under two hours with the guilty verdict.

Following the verdict, the State moved to have Howard remain incarcerated and moved back to Dawson County while awaiting sentencing.

A sentencing hearing should take place within six weeks of the trial’s end. The trial was adjourned at 7:26 p.m.

Possible sentences for the crime of negligent homicide can include a term not to exceed 20 years in the state prison, fines up to $50,000 or both.

Recap of the Investigation

Following Hopkins’ hospitalization in 2018, Howard’s father reported his concerns over the nature of the child’s passing to the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office, noting that Howard had forgotten her son in her car on multiple occasions and it was an issue he had addressed her about before. He added that the child’s father had taken him to GMC on June 25 for a routine checkup and the child appeared to be in good health, raising questions of how he became so ill so quickly.

DCSO Deputy Miles Baisch opened an investigation into the child’s sudden illness and was informed of his death soon afterwards. Child Protective Services in Billings also began an investigation.

Baisch spoke with several witnesses, including Hopkins’ day care provider who also stated he appeared in good health the last time they saw him. According to court documents, the day care provider had run into Howard at GMC the day she brought her son in and said he had fallen asleep wrapped in blankets at home. However, Howard had also told investigators in Billings that he had fallen asleep wrapped in blankets while in the care of the day care provider.

On July 12, Baisch interviewed Howard and told her that he needed to hear her side of the story. As the report reads, she told Baisch that on the night of June 25 she had an argument with her boyfriend before dropping him off at his late shift at work. During subsequent text messages obtained by the Sheriff’s Department, Howard said that she was going to stay at a friend’s house for the night.

According to court documents, she later attended a friend’s party and arrived at around 11 p.m. Witnesses at the party said they did not see Howard’s child with her.

During the interview, Howard told Baisch that she left the party at around 5:30 a.m. to spend the night at a friend’s house next door. She said that at that time, she removed the toddler from his child seat to lay him down on the car seat, and went inside with the intention of sleeping an hour before driving home.

However, Howard said that she slept until 1 p.m. on June 26, at which time she woke up to find Hopkins still in the car with sweaty, pale skin, a high temperature and labored breathing. The court document states that Howard attempted to cool him off in a bathtub before leaving and dialing GMC at 1:18 p.m., telling them that she was bringing her child in.

She was formally charged on Aug. 13, 2018.

The case garnered a lot of local attention, with local residents expressing their grief for the child. A “Justice for Caleb” Facebook page was even established. Given the amount of publicity the case received, a change of venue was granted and the initial jury selection called for an extraordinary 200 jurors in September 2018.

The trial date was changed multiple times as Howard was twice sent for mental health evaluations while her defense team prepared a mental inefficiency defense. The trial date was also moved due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Howard’s attorneys did motion to have the charges against her dismissed due to speedy trial violations, however the court found that the delays were not the fault of the State and dismissed the motion.

Reach Hunter Herbaugh at rrreporter@rangerreview. com.