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The death of Prince McLeod Rams: Where do Prince William prosecutors turn now?

The stunning revelation Friday that the chief Virginia medical examiner could not determine a cause of death for the 15-month-old victim in a capital murder case, combined with earlier developments in the case, may make it extremely difficult for Prince William County prosecutors to obtain the death penalty for Joaquin S. Rams, who they have long believed is a serial killer. Since 2003, three people close to him, each with large life insurance policies, have died suddenly. Prosecutors are first trying to convict Rams of drowning his young son, Prince McLeod Rams, in Manassas City in October 2012.

But simply convincing a jury that he killed his toddler son at all, when all three witnesses in the house say he didn’t do it, will also be hard. The latest evidence of that is a detailed deposition of Rams’s 15-year-old son, who corroborated the sequence of events related by two other witnesses in the Manassas City house on the day that Prince McLeod Rams fell unconscious and later died.

Faced with the prospect of having no official cause of death in a murder trial, Prince William prosecutors proposed that they be allowed to introduce evidence of the two other deaths connected to Rams — the 2003 shooting death of his ex-girlfriend, Shawn Mason, and the 2008 asphyxiation death of his mother, Alma Collins, ruled a suicide — to create a case of circumstantial evidence against Rams in the toddler case. In a court brief, prosecutors revealed new details in all three cases which show why investigators suspect Rams is a serial killer, which we will see below. “These three deaths,” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney James Willett wrote, “are an ‘artful plot’ consisting of common features, common victims, and a common purpose,” namely to kill his family members periodically to collect insurance benefits and fend off creditors.

But Prince William Circuit Court Judge Craig D. Johnston wasn’t buying it. He quickly ruled that the old cases could not be used as evidence to prove Rams drowned his son in October 2012. Even if Rams had committed two previous homicides, “a propensity” to kill on prior occasions is not evidence of actually committing a murder on a separate occasion, Johnston said in a ruling from the bench, citing extensive Virginia case law.

Still, Prince William prosecutors have shown no interest in dropping the death penalty case, and even if it collapses, they may well re-prosecute the 2003 death of Mason. A grand jury indicted Rams for that killing last November, but prosecutors quietly dismissed the case in August. Willett said Monday that prosecutors wanted the capital case to go first. But the Mason case could certainly be reopened. Meanwhile, Rams waits in the Prince William County jail, where he has been held without bond since January 2013, with no trial date set.

The reversal of a medical examiner’s cause of death finding is virtually unheard of, local lawyers said. In January 2013, after taking three months to study the body, brain and medical history of Prince Rams, assistant medical examiner Constance R. DiAngelo in Manassas ruled his cause of death to be drowning, and the manner of death to be undetermined. But on October 8, DiAngelo’s boss in Richmond, chief medical examiner William T. Gormley, wrote that he had reviewed the case and “determined that the cause of death should be changed to undetermined.”  Gormley’s letter is below.

But why would Gormley intervene in a capital murder case and reverse his medical examiner’s findings 21 months later? Gormley did not respond to repeated requests for comment. His letter is addressed to the “Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney,” so prosecutors may have asked Gormley to take a second look. Willett said he could not discuss a pending case. The defense lawyers for Rams said they did not make the request.

The case was shaping up as a battle of the experts over the drowning ruling. Police and prosecutors last year expressed confidence in DiAngelo’s finding. After some experts unconnected with the case, and Rams’s lawyers, questioned the drowning ruling in Washington Post articles last year, in part because of the toddler’s prior history of multiple febrile seizures, Prince William prosecutors asked three other doctors to review the case. A pediatric neurologist and a pediatric emergency room doctor largely agreed with DiAngelo’s conclusions.

But the chief medical examiner of Kentucky, a forensic pathologist named Tracey Corey, strongly disagreed with the drowning ruling. According to her letter to prosecutors, she said the fluid in Prince’s body at post mortem was consistent with the life-support systems he was on for 28 hours while being treated at Inova Fairfax Hospital.  Corey also said a blood stain on the baby’s sheet “was consistent with the initiating event beginning in the crib,” as was the paramedics’ observation of dried blood in Prince’s nose. Corey concluded that the toddler died of lack of oxygen to the brain “following a full cardiopulmonary arrest while in the home of his father. But I do not believe that he died as a result of drowning.”

Court records show that the prosecutors provided these findings to the defense, which already had its own expert ready to challenge DiAngelo. Did the prosecutors then ask Gormley to take another look, in hopes of shoring up their side? However it happened, Gormley did take another look, and his findings were disastrous for the prosecution. Now the chief medical examiners of two states have determined that the cause of Prince’s death is “undetermined.”

Next, the prosecution began to unveil some of the other reasons it suspected Joaquin Rams of three homicides, regardless of what the doctors said, in hopes of convincing Judge Johnston to let them be presented to the jury in the death penalty case in chief. Among the common threads were that Rams was having financial trouble around the time of each death, that there were life insurance policies on each victim, and that Rams did not help organize or attend the memorial services of any of the victims, including his mother and his son. Willett also claimed that Rams had “not worked a day in his life,” a claim the defense said was untrue, which allegedly contributed to his financial difficulties.

Prosecutors noted that Rams was the person who discovered Mason’s body on March 20, 2003, shot once in the head in her home in Manassas City. Mason had a death benefit from her employer that paid $142,828, prosecutors said, not $1 million as has been previously reported. Rams allegedly inquired repeatedly about whether he was the beneficiary, and then traveled to Florida and asked family members to show him homes in exclusive neighborhoods, Willett wrote. When he learned that his son with Mason, Joaquin S. Rams Jr., was the beneficiary, Rams allegedly tried to name himself as a guardian of his son’s estate. But the Prince William court ordered the nearly $143,000 placed in trust for his son, payable when he turns 18.

The death of Rams’s mother Alma Collins, in November 2008, was ruled a suicide by the medical examiner. She had been living with Rams and his son in their Bristow home. It appeared she had asphyxiated herself with a plastic bag, though there was ample blood beneath her torso, and Willett wrote that Rams claimed he discovered his mother and pulled the bag off her head, but he had no blood on him. A suicide note was found which read: “This is my time now. I love you guys with all my heart, make sure to take care of Joaquin Jr. because you know what he means to me. It’s just better this way. I’m sorry. I love you.” Investigators have not been able to prove or disprove that Rams wrote the note. Willett said Collins had been planning to move to Florida to live near family and had forwarded some items there already. Two family members have also said publicly that Collins was not suicidal and was planning to move.

Rams immediately had his mother cremated, Willett wrote. Evidence experts have told investigators that the blood stains and the scene in general “are inconsistent with a suicide,” the prosecutor said. Rams inherited $162,439 from his mother’s estate in 2009, and within two years the money had been spent, Willett wrote. Despite the medical examiner’s ruling, “the death of Alma Rose Collins is more appropriately considered a homicide,” Willett concluded.

By 2011, Rams had begun dating a woman he met online, Hera McLeod, and on July 1, 2011, McLeod gave birth to Prince. Rams and McLeod soon broke up and a custody dispute was litigated in Montgomery County, where McLeod’s family lives. That fall, prosecutors said, Rams obtained three life insurance policies on the baby — one for $30,000, one for $444,000 and one for $50,000 — all naming himself as the primary beneficiary. The home he owned in Bristow was in foreclosure, he was indebted to his older son’s private school and he owed nearly $50,000 on a home equity line of credit, prosecutors wrote. It was those financial circumstances which created the need to kill his son, prosecutors said. Rams’s lawyers said last year that he obtained the insurance policies as savings investments, and that he originally intended only to buy insurance on himself, but was convinced by an agent to take out a package deal on himself and his two sons.

The circumstances surrounding Prince’s death are still admissible before a jury in that case. But the prior two cases are not, the judge ruled. If prosecutors resurrect the murder charge in the Mason case, those circumstances would then come before a jury.

Meanwhile, a related pair of civil lawsuits have been proceeding in Fairfax County. McLeod sued the psychological practice who examined Rams and issued a report to the Montgomery County court in the custody case. McLeod accused both the practice, Ashburn Psychological Services, and the psychologist involved, Margaret Wong, of wrongful death for their role in enabling Rams to have access to her son, although it was a Montgomery judge who ultimately made the decision to allow Rams to have unsupervised visits with Prince. Ashburn Psychological Services settled with McLeod for $100,000, court records show, while Wong is still fighting the suit.

The process for allowing Rams to see his toddler son involved McLeod, who had primary custody of the boy, handing him off to a court-appointed supervisor, who would then deliver Prince to Rams at a Montgomery police station. This occurred without incident on Oct. 20, 2012, with Rams and his then 13-year-old son in the car to receive Prince.

In a deposition of Joaquin Rams Jr. taken in March of this year and recently filed in Fairfax Circuit Court, the teen gave a detailed recounting of that afternoon. Rams drove his two sons from Montgomery back to Manassas City, to the house he shared with Roger and Sue Jestice. They played with and fed Prince, and the junior Rams said his little brother seemed happy. He said his father was constantly kissing, hugging and playing with his toddler.

At nap time, the sleeping toddler was placed in a crib in Joaquin Rams Jr.’s room, while the teen played video games next to him. After about 15 minutes, the junior Rams testified, “My dad came back in. He was, he was yelling Prince’s name. He picked up Prince and took him to the bathroom. And then I heard the water start running…I asked him what was happening. And he told me, go downstairs to get Mr. Roger.”

Joaquin Rams Jr. testified that he darted downstairs to alert Roger Jestice, who grabbed a phone to call 911, then ran back upstairs about 30 seconds later. He said his father “cupped his right hand, while still having Prince in his left hand, and he took the water and put it over Prince.” Rams Jr. said Prince was “pale. I believe, I think, at the time, that he was kind of turning blue, I guess you could kind of see a blue shade going over his face.” A lawyer asked him if there was a stopper in the bathtub drain and the teen said no, that the water was flowing down the drain. He said Jestice walked in speaking to an emergency dispatcher, and that he went back downstairs to wait for paramedics. Rams Jr. said he did not hear Prince make any sounds before his father rushed in and scooped him up. Rams Sr. has claimed that he saw Prince having a seizure and making noises, that the toddler was feverish and that Rams poured cool water on him to try to cool him down. Prince had previously suffered one febrile seizure while visiting his father, and five in previous weeks with his mother.

The prosecution’s theory, then, is that Rams decided to drown his son with three other people in the house, and that he did so in the interval between when he told his son to get help and when his son and Jestice returned to the upstairs bathroom. Roger and Sue Jestice have said that Rams did not drown Prince, and they continue to attend his hearings. Court records show that Rams made a number of statements to paramedics and police that weekend, but they appear largely consistent. He cooperated with police initially and he and Jestice allowed a lengthy search of the house. Court records show prosecutors also have numerous tapes of jailhouse visits to and phone calls from Rams, the contents of which have not been publicly disclosed.

Willett told Judge Johnston that his motion seeking to introduce the other two deaths, from 2003 and 2008, was “a seminal motion in the case. This motion will lay the groundwork and define the landscape for how this trial will proceed.”

But Johnston, citing long Virginia precedent, said he could not have “three murder trials in one.” Defense lawyer Daniel Morissette said afterward, “We believe the judge’s ruling was absolutely correct on the law. And the action by the chief medical examiner strengthens the defense position that Mr. Rams is innocent in the death of his son.”

Here is the letter from the chief medical examiner of Virginia, William T. Gormley, that could be a pivotal decision in the case:

Previously:

Part 1: The Death of Prince Rams: Introduction

Part 2: The birth of Prince

Part 3: The death of Prince

Part 4: The investigation

Prosecutors launch special grand jury to investigate Joaquin Rams

Key witness in Joaquin Rams case speaks publicly for first time

Part 5: Capital murder case begins

Virginia medical examiner reverses ruling to no known cause of death in Prince Rams case

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