Grand jury indicts mother in death of child found in swing

By MATTHEW BARAKAT
Associated Press

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.

___

Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko and Ben Nuckols in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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