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Bemidji woman gets 10-years probation in fatal hypothermia case involving 6-year-old cousin

 A Bemidji woman who last month pleaded guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge after her 6-year-old cousin she was supposed to be babysitting wandered out into 25-below February weather in Bemidji, for the moment, has avoided jail time.

Rachel Downer, 23, used her hands to sponge up tears Monday as Judge Shari Schluchter read her sentence: no prison, as long as Downer follows the letter of her probation for 10 years. Schluchter granted the wishes of the defense and the prosecution by staying a sentence that would have sent Downer, found to have a persistent mental illness, to prison for 32 months.

"This is a case of loss and sadness," Schluchter told the defendant and her family, watching from the gallery. "Nothing I do today can relieve that sadness or replace that loss."

Downer declined to speak and dropped her head for most of the sentencing. A year ago, she had been diagnosed with a mental illness, prolonging the criminal case and delaying closure for the family of Mercedes Mayfield, whose icy body was found the morning of Feb. 27, 2014.

"I don't feel sorry for Rachel," said Malika Peoples, Mercedes' mother, in a statement before Schlucter announced sentencing. "I don't know what adult leaves a child like that. It's her fault.

I haven't even started coping over my daughter's death. Her eighth birthday just passed."

After reading her statement, Peoples snatched up her paper and walked out of the courtroom. She had spoken for about a minute, choking back tears from the third word. She wasn't there when Schluchter made it official, ruling Downer caused her daughter's death.

According to a probable cause statement and other court documents, Peoples was recovering from an injury, taking pain medication the evening of Feb. 26, 2014.

She asked Downer to come over and babysit Mercedes. From there, accounts diverge.

Peoples said Downer and Mercedes were expected 

to stay at Peoples' apartment.

Downer said the plan was to take Mercedes to Downer's apartment. When she decided to leave Mercedes at home, Downer didn't tell Peoples.

The young girl helped Downer load up her car that night and she drove off.

Downer told police she watched Mercedes enter back into the apartment building, but when Peoples woke up the next morning, she couldn't find her daughter. She called Downer, who said Mercedes wasn't with her.

Peoples got off the phone, looked out the window, and saw her daughter.

Temperatures that night dropped to 25 below. Peoples called 911 at about 6:30 a.m. Officers and emergency personnel tried to revive Mercedes, who was pronounced dead at the scene.

Peoples said she never would have done what court documents suggest Downer did that night. Her other daughter, 5, fidgeted from a bench in the gallery and turned her head, confused, when her mother left the courtroom.

An aunt of Downer and Mercedes called the babysitter's behavior "malicious."

"Hearts have been broken," she told the court. "Lives are incomplete."

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