LA PLATA, Md. (AP) — The facts are hard to fathom: a mother alone with her 3-year-old son in a playground for two days straight, pushing him in a swing until he died of dehydration and low body temperature; pushing him even after he died until finally sheriff’s deputies came to investigate.
To Vontasha Simms, whose daughter Romechia Simms is now charged with manslaughter, the facts are a clear indication that Romechia Simms was suffering from mental illness so severe that a criminal prosecution is misplaced.
Vontasha Simms said she was “totally flabbergasted” by prosecutors’ announcement Monday that they were charging her 24-year-old daughter with child abuse, manslaughter and child neglect. “No one in their right mind is going to sit out there for two days in the elements,” she said, noting that her daughter was exposed to the weather and had no food or water in those two days.
The case had been under investigation since 3-year-old Ji’Aire Donnell Lee was found dead May 22. State’s Attorney Anthony Covington said the delay in obtaining an indictment simply ensured he had gathered all the information he could. A medical examiner ruled the death a homicide back in June.
After Monday’s arraignment, Covington said he didn’t know whether he might revisit the criminal charges if subsequent mental-health evaluations raise questions about Simms’ sanity or competency. He declined to discuss specifics of the case, including whether Simms had offered an explanation of her behavior to authorities.
Christopher Slobogin, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s law school and an expert in mental health law, said prosecutors have leeway in deciding whether to bring criminal charges in cases like this. How much Simms’ apparent mental illness affects the case depends on how strong the defense’s argument is that she is ill, Slobogin said.
“If she’s pushing her dead child in a swing that’s pretty good evidence of serious impairment,” Slobogin said. Sheriff’s deputies found the toddler dead in the swing the morning of May 22 after receiving a call that a woman had been pushing a child in the swing at odd hours.
State’s Attorney Anthony Covington said at Monday’s arraignment that police found Lee’s jacket in the trash, and his shoes off his feet, filled with rain water. During the proceeding, Simms objected when prosecutors declared her a danger and a flight risk, according to Kristen Ayers, a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney.
“I’m not a risk to anybody,” Simms said, before her public defender advised her to be quiet. “I didn’t even mean for this to happen.” Prosecutors said Simms’ mental state is in question and they wanted her to remain jailed.
A judge ordered Simms held, with bond set at $150,000, and scheduled a January trial. She faces up to 45 years in prison — 30 years on first-degree child abuse, 10 years on the manslaughter charge and 5 years on a charge of child neglect.
Vontasha Simms said her daughter had just begun taking medication for her mental-health problems a few months before Ji’Aire’s death, and wondered whether there were problems getting the right medication or dosage.
“Somehow, somewhere within that episode, time stopped for her,” Vontasha Simms said. She hopes to retain a private attorney to represent her daughter, but worries she can’t afford it. The public defender representing Simms did not return a call Monday seeking comment.
Earlier this year, the boy’s father petitioned a District of Columbia court for custody of his son, saying Simms was behaving erratically and jumped out of a moving taxicab with Ji’Aire. In court papers connected to the custody case, Romechia Simms acknowledged she had had a mental breakdown but insisted she was doing better.
“This breakdown that I had was the first that I have ever had in my life and I truly believe it was from an extreme amount of stress weighing heavy on me. I am now in a much better productive space,” she wrote in a letter to the judge.
In May, days before Ji’Aire’s death, a judge ordered the parents to share custody and court records indicate both Simms and the boy’s father agreed to the arrangement.
Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko and Ben Nuckols in Washington contributed to this report.