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A Fort Detrick soldier will spend the next eight years in a military prison after her conviction Tuesday of the rape of one of her three daughters and on three counts of indecent liberties for causing her children to be photographed naked by their stepfather.
Donna Maxson sat quietly as the military judge, Lt. Col. Fansu Ku, read the sentence Tuesday evening. The punishment includes a drop in rank from specialist to private and a dishonorable discharge. In addition, Maxson, who has served two tours in Kuwait, will have to register as a sex offender.
Military law requires that Tuesday's ruling be automatically appealed.
The sentence came after a morning of defense witness testimony from Maxson's mother, Brenda Nelson, who tearfully described a loving daughter, and from former and current colleagues. The 31-year-old Maxson, who had worked at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases during her court-martial, was described by several witnesses as an "outstanding" soldier.
Sgt. Thomas Plummer, Maxson's direct supervisor at USAMRIID, testified that her work "has been outstanding considering the circumstances."
"My professional opinion of Spc. Maxson is still that of an outstanding soldier," Plummer said when asked by defense attorney Capt. Faith Coutier if he knew the details in the case and if they had clouded his views of her.
Aside from her work, government's attorneys Maj. Brad Cowan and Capt. William Cook portrayed Maxson as a negligent mother who allowed a sexual predator, Allen Maxson, unfettered access to her three daughters, who are now ages 13, 8 and 5. Cook and Cowan said she encouraged Allen Maxson's interest in child pornography in lurid online chats while she was deployed to Kuwait and he stayed behind to care for her youngest child.
Coutier said Donna Maxson was guilty of nothing more than bad taste in men, arguing that the government's case was based on circumstantial evidence found on digital storage devices and computer equipment that could not be definitively tied to her. Courtier also questioned the credibility of the testimony of Delores Simas, a Pennsylvania woman who tipped off police about suspected abuse, after she testified Monday that she also saw Allen Maxson rape the child over the video stream. Coutier said that contradicted earlier testimony from a phone hearing with Simas regarding the age of the child and the activity she saw the two engage in.
"She married a man who was abusive, controlling," Coutier said during closing statements.
Allen Maxson was arrested and charged in Pennsylvania in March 2010 after Simas, whom he met online at an adult website, reported to police that she watched him sexually assault a young girl via a webcam. Charges against Donna Maxson spurred from that case after a forensic computer investigator discovered chats, videos and sexually explicit photos of children on digital evidence seized from Allen Maxson's home and on a rented laptop that had been retrieved from Rent-A-Center.
Donna Maxson wore an Army combat uniform and had her brown hair pulled back in a tight bun during the two days of testimony. She broke down in tears during a brief statement before sentencing Tuesday and read a letter to her three children, but did not testify in her own defense. Donna Maxson said she joined the military in June 2002 after being inspired to "defend her children's rights" after watching televised coverage of the terrorist attacks of the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
Donna Maxson said she sought out therapy for depression and anger management voluntarily to try to understand her actions.
"My only job was to keep you safe, and I have failed you," Donna Maxson said in the letter to her children, who testified against their mother Monday but were not in the courtroom Tuesday. "You have no idea how sorry I truly am. I let a monster into your life."
The rape charge involved Donna Maxson's 8-year-old daughter, who testified Monday that her stepfather touched her genitals while her mother watched and did nothing to stop him. Under military law, the full charge of rape is applied if another person is negligent in doing anything to stop it, Cowan said.
Donna Maxson was found not guilty on other charges that included indecent language, obstruction of justice, child neglect resulting in harm, and aiding and abetting possession of child pornography. She was found not guilty of a charge that she aided and abetted in the rape of her youngest daughter.
Scott Burns, the girls' biological father, testified during the sentencing portion of the trial that the girls are in therapy and improving.
"The kids are safe now," Burns said after the trial ended Tuesday.
Allen Maxson is serving three to 23 years in a Pennsylvania prison on child pornography charges. Donna Maxson had originally been charged in that state, but that case was dropped in early 2011.
Frederick County court documents show Donna Maxson had filed for divorce from Allen Maxson late last year. Online court records list the case as inactive and closed. It was not immediately clear what the status of that case is.