Jury finds Hawaii mother guilty of assaulting child on flight from Alaska

In this May 22, 2015 file photo, Samantha Leialoha Watanabe walks outside of federal court in Honolulu. On Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, a federal jury found her guilty of assaulting her 15-month-old daughter on a flight from Alaska in May. Prosecutors say Watanabe cursed at her daughter, smacked her in the head, hit her in the face with a stuffed doll and yanked out tufts of her hair. They say passengers and flight attendants on the May 3 Alaska Airlines flight believed Watanabe was unnecessarily rough to a generally well-behaved toddler.

In this May 22, 2015 file photo, Samantha Leialoha Watanabe walks outside of federal court in Honolulu. On Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, a federal jury found her guilty of assaulting her 15-month-old daughter on a flight from Alaska in May. Prosecutors say Watanabe cursed at her daughter, smacked her in the head, hit her in the face with a stuffed doll and yanked out tufts of her hair. They say passengers and flight attendants on the May 3 Alaska Airlines flight believed Watanabe was unnecessarily rough to a generally well-behaved toddler.

HONOLULU — A Hawaii mother was convicted Tuesday of assaulting her 15-month-old daughter during a May flight from Anchorage, Alaska to Honolulu.

Samantha Leialoha Watanabe’s defense was that she didn’t do anything beyond permissible parental discipline during a long flight with a fussy toddler. Prosecutors alleged she was unreasonably rough with the generally well-behaved girl by smacking her in head, hitting her in the face with a stuffed doll and yanking out tufts of her hair.

The jury reached its verdict after deliberating about four hours, starting Monday afternoon.

An investigator with the federal public defender’s office put her arm around Watanabe when the verdict was announced.

A flight attendant testified that he saw passengers treat luggage better than how Watanabe treated her child, Assistant U.S. Attorney Marc Wallenstein reminded jurors in his closing arguments on Monday.

“She’s a little girl, and she’s why we’re all here today,” Wallenstein said.

He declined to comment after the verdict.

Defense attorney Alexander Silvert said only two words immediately after the verdict was read: “Extremely disappointed.” During the trial, he argued the allegations were fabricated by judgmental passengers who didn’t like how Watanabe looked and dressed her child. The girl was wearing a Playboy bunny pendant— considered a symbol of pornography to a passenger but simply a bunny to a child, Silvert said last week.

The toddler didn’t have any bruises or marks on her body and there was no bleeding, redness or other signs that hair was pulled out, Silvert said.

Watanabe, who is five months pregnant with her seventh child, declined comment as she walked out of the courthouse. She faces up to a year in jail when she’s sentenced on March 15.

“That’s something for the court to consider,” Silvert said about how Watanabe’s pregnancy could affect her sentence.

Jurors had to unanimously agree on at least one act of striking that Watanabe committed. Through the courtroom manager, all 10 women and two men on the jury declined to comment, so it’s not known which act they agreed upon.

Silvert said defense attorneys plan to file a motion to vacate the verdict and dismiss the charge, based on Wallenstein’s closing argument that jurors could consider the pinching and hair pulling as crimes to find her guilty of. Pinching and hair pulling can’t be considered striking acts, Silvert said.

If the motion isn’t successful, Silvert said the defense will appeal.

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