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September 14, 2015
By MATTHEW BARAKAT
LA PLATA, Md. (AP) — A Maryland woman who was found pushing her dead son in a playground swing earlier this year has been indicted and charged with manslaughter and child abuse, authorities announced Monday.At an arraignment Monday in Charles County Circuit Court, prosecutors said Romechia Simms, 24, of LaPlata, spent two entire days in a LaPlata playground pushing her 3-year-old son, Ji’Aire Donnell Lee. Authorities say Lee died of dehydration and low body temperature while he was in the swing.
Medical examiners ruled the death a homicide. At Monday’s arraignment, 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. 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 Monday that police found Lee’s jacket in the trash, and his shoes off his feet, filled with rain water.
A judge ordered Simms held, with bond set at $150,000, and scheduled a January trial date. 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. Family members have said Simms was suffering from mental illness. She was hospitalized after her son’s death, and had been hospitalized for a brief period in the months beforehand. The public defender representing Simms did not return a call Monday seeking comment. Simms’ mother, Vontasha Simms, said she was “totally flabbergasted” by the decision to bring criminal charges. “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, either, during those two days.
She said her daughter had just begun taking medication for her mental-health problems a couple of months before, and wondered whether there were problems getting the right medication or dosage. She said her daughter had been complaining of headaches before Ji’Aire’s death. “Somehow, somewhere within that episode, time stopped for her,” Vontasha Simms said. Vontasha Simms said she hopes to retain a private attorney to represent her daughter, but worries that she can’t afford it. 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.
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. While he acknowledged that mental-health issues are part of the case, he said it would be up to the defense to bring forward a mental-illness defense. He said he could not discuss specific facts of the case, including whether Simms had offered an explanation of her behavior to the authorities. 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, 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, just 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.
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Boy had been on park swing two days when he was found dead, officials say
The Washington Post
The story was chilling and heartbreaking: A 3-year-old boy was found dead in a Southern Maryland park, his mother pushing him on the swing.
More than a month after Ji’Aire Donnell Lee’s death, the Charles County Sheriff’s Office revealed more terrible details: Ji’Aire was alive when his mother put him on the swing. He stayed on it for almost two days.
A medical examiner’s office has ruled that Ji’Aire’s death was a homicide, and the sheriff’s office said Tuesday that he died of hypothermia and dehydration during his long time on the swing. The autopsy report will be sent to the county state’s attorney’s office, which will decide whether to file charges against Ji’Aire’s mother, Romechia Simms.
Kristen Ayers, of the state’s attorney’s office, said that because prosecutors had not received the autopsy report, they cannot say whether they will file charges.
Ji’Aire was dead when police found his mother pushing him in Wills Memorial Park the morning of May 22. At the time, police were unsure when and how he died.
Death of boy found in park swing ruled a homicide
An autopsy report has revealed that 3-year-old Ji’Aire Donnell Lee, who was found dead on a park swing as his mother pushed in May, died due to hypothermia and dehydration after spending two nights in the Maryland park. (WUSA9)
On Tuesday, the sheriff’s office said its investigation revealed that Simms, 24, arrived at the park in La Plata with her son about 11:15 a.m. May 20.
Simms, who had previously experienced a mental breakdown, stayed in the park for nearly 44 hours, pushing Ji’Aire on the swing. Early on the morning of May 22, someone who had spotted the pair at the park the day before called police to say that it was unusual that they were still there.
At 6:55 a.m., after a night during which the temperature fell to 51 degrees, police found the dead child and his mother in the park.
[She’d recovered from a breakdown, she said. Then her son was found dead.]
The police account differs from the timeline previously offered to The Washington Post by Simms’s mother, Vontasha Simms, who was living with her daughter and grandson at a motel in La Plata, Md.
Vontasha Simms said that Ji’Aire, a chubby-cheeked preschooler nicknamed “Sumo,” had gone to the Dollar Store and Burger King with his mother May 21 before leaving for the park that evening. When they didn’t return, Vontasha Simms said she grew worried and at 12:30 a.m. May 22 called her daughter. Romechia Simms assured her mother that they were on their way home.
Diane Richardson, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said that Vontasha Simms’s account was incorrect and that the mother and son spent two nights in the park. “It’s definitely Wednesday — that we know for a fact,” Richardson said. “There were witnesses there. There’s no indication that she left.”
Pallbearers carry the casket of 3-year-old Ji’Aire Lee at Resurrection Cemetery in Clinton, Md., on June 5. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)
In an interview Tuesday night, Vontasha Simms declined to discuss the discrepancy, saying only that Romechia Simms has been suffering so much from mental illness that “she doesn’t realize herself that she was there for that long of a time.”
Vontasha Simms said that when she and Romechia Simms were told that authorities ruled Ji’Aire’s death a homicide, they were devastated.
“We’re all upset by it, because that’s not what we’re about. It doesn’t shine a good light,” Vontasha Simms said. “We know she was in a terrible situation, and I know she didn’t do anything purposefully to harm him. But I am not going to contradict anything [investigators] are saying. I don’t want to muddy the waters.”
The family has not hired an attorney but is “looking into it,” Vontasha Simms said. “Right now, we’re waiting to see what happens. It’s just a tough pill to swallow. I don’t know what [the prosecutors] are going to do, but our main concern is keeping [Romechia Simms] emotionally stable. She’s at a fragile point. She goes a few times a week to a mental health facility.”
Last month, Vontasha Simms said that her daughter suffers from depression and bipolar disorder. Romechia Simms was hospitalized after her son was found dead but released in time for his funeral.
[Mother wipes away tears at funeral for boy found dead on park swing]
Romechia Simms had been hospitalized twice before her son’s death for erratic behavior. In an interview last month, Ji’Aire’s father, James “Donnell” Lee, said she thought someone was trying to kill him in February. Not long after that, she jumped out of a moving cab with their son in tow.
Lee, who could not be reached to comment Tuesday, said he found his ex-girlfriend and child on the side of Branch Avenue after midnight. “He was walking with no socks, jacket open, in his pajamas. She left her diaper bag two blocks away,” Lee said.