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Hot sauce discipline decision is jury's after final arguments

Casey Grove
Trial began Wednesday for Jessica Beagley, who is charged with child abuse. Beagley was featured on the "Dr. Phil" television show for disciplining her adopted Russian son by putting hot sauce in his mouth. MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News

A jury of three men and three women now has the job of trying to reach a verdict in the trial of Jessica Beagley, an Anchorage mother accused of child abuse for using hot sauce and a cold shower to punish her adopted son.

The case went to the jury shortly after noon Monday, when both sides wrapped up with closing arguments.

Beagley, 36, has been on trial since Aug. 15, with three days of witness testimony and evidence presentation -- including a video of the punishment sent to the "Dr. Phil" show, which features licensed therapist Phil McGraw giving advice.

Beagley and her husband Gary, an Anchorage police officer, have six kids, including 7-year-old twin boys adopted from Russia in 2008. The case has drawn intense interest in Russia, where the boys retain citizenship until their 18th birthday.

Beagley and video shot by her daughter -- in which she is seen yelling at one of the twins before putting hot sauce in his mouth and forcing him into a cold shower -- were seen on a Nov. 17 segment of the show called "Mommy Confessions." Several callers to Anchorage police reported Beagley's appearance on the show, prompting an investigation, a detective testified earlier in the trial.

Russian officials told the Daily News in January that if Beagley is found guilty, there is a chance the twins could be sent back to Russia.

In her closing argument, municipal prosecutor Cynthia Franklin told the jury that Beagley abused the boy to get on national television. Beagley's unorthodox punishments were extreme, cruel and therefore broke the law, Franklin said.

Beagley wrote an email to the show's producers in April 2009 in an effort to get on a segment titled "Angry Moms," Franklin said. But the producers didn't respond to Beagley until October 2010, the prosecutor said.

"The 'Dr. Phil' show suddenly contacted Jessica Beagley, out of the blue," Franklin said. "They said, 'We're doing another show. Are you still angry?' The evidence shows that she said yes."

Producers from the show asked Beagley for videos, then told her the first clips she sent them didn't show her punishing the boy, Franklin said. It wasn't enough to get her on TV, so when the boy acted out in school, Beagley was ready with the hot sauce and a Flip video camera, the prosecutor said.

"This wasn't about getting help. This was about being on TV," Franklin said. "It's not about him, it's about Jessica."

The videos that detectives pulled from Beagley's computer were auditions for the show, with Beagley as the star, Franklin said.

"Nobody's saying Dr. Phil's innocent in this. He has his operation, his machine," Franklin said. "He grinds people up and spits them out. That's what he does for a living."

But the reasons that Beagley doled out the hot sauce and cold water are at the center of why she's charged with a crime, Franklin said.

"There is no reason in this world why someone would have to hurt a child to get on reality television. That's out of bounds," Franklin said. "This kid got to be the one Jessica used -- used -- to show just how mean she could be to get on a show."

"That is child abuse," Franklin said.

Beagley's lawyer, William Ingaldson, denied that his client simply wanted to be on TV. Beagley might have chosen a poor method of discipline, he said, but what she did was not a crime.

There's no dispute that Beagley caused the boy pain, Ingaldson said. The city prosecutor had not proved the punishment to be torture or to have been done in a cruel way, just for the sake of causing pain or to get on the "Dr. Phil" show, Ingaldson said. The discipline was intended to teach the boy a lesson, he said.

"It's not about, 'Did she make the best choices in disciplining him?' " Ingaldson said. "It's not a criminal offense to use a punishment that doesn't work."

As much as Beagley wishes she had not contacted the "Dr. Phil" show, it also was not a crime to send video of the discipline to the show's producers, Ingaldson said.

Ingaldson said the city prosecutor's rundown of the video was an attempt to distract the jurors with emotion.

"You're not to base your decision on emotion, you're to base your decision on what the facts are," Ingaldson told the jury.

According to Ingaldson, the facts showed that Beagley intended to show the boy that what he'd done at school that day would not be tolerated.

"He really did get in trouble that day, and he really was punished for something he did wrong," Ingaldson said. "This isn't a mom who's trying to get her kids to misbehave so she can get on TV. She tells them, 'Don't misbehave.' "

"She did not punish (him) because she got some sort of vicarious thrill out of it," Ingaldson said.

Franklin, the prosecutor, said in her rebuttal that the video itself -- which ended up online and caused the boy to be teased at school -- was further punishment.

"That's a punishment, having your mom humiliate you and having it put up on the Internet," Franklin said. "Now he's the kid who got taped and put on 'Dr. Phil.' And that will live on the Internet forever."

"The punishment in this case was over the top, it was too much, it was abusive. But mostly it was unnecessary," Franklin told the jury. "There was only one reason she had to do it, and you know what that reason is. She had to do it to show Dr. Phil just how angry she was."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.


By CASEY GROVE
casey.grove@adn.com