Joaquin S. Rams, accused of killing his 15-month-old son in 2012 to collect more than $500,000 in life insurance benefits on the boy, was found guilty of capital murder in Prince William County on Thursday by the judge who heard the case.
Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows presided over the trial after both sides waived a jury. In a 62-page opinion read from the bench, Bellows rejected the defense argument that Prince McLeod Rams, who had a history of fever-induced seizures, died of one. The judge concluded that prosecutors had proved that the child was drowned or suffocated.
Bellows said that Rams was in financial distress, giving him motive, and that he had the means and opportunity to kill his son that October day.
“Prince did not die of natural causes, whether due to a febrile seizure or some other natural process or disease,” Bellows said in his ruling. “He did not die by accident.”
The child’s death, he said, was “inflicted by the defendant.”
Prince’s mother, Hera McLeod, 36, wept when Bellows said the word “guilty.”
“Finally,” she said as she walked out of the courtroom after the three-hour hearing. “I’m relieved because he’s not getting out.”
Bellows set Rams’s sentencing hearing for June,
although the judge has no options other than a life sentence. Rams’s attorney, Chris Leibig, said he plans to appeal the verdict but declined to comment further.
Rams, 44, spent the last four years awaiting trial and had claimed since before his arrest in January 2013 that he did not kill his son. But he did not testify at his trial and instead allowed his lawyers to peck away at the prosecution’s theory that he drowned the toddler at a friend’s home in Manassas, Va., on Oct. 20, 2012.
After Virginia assistant medical examiner Constance DiAngelo ruled that Prince was drowned, Rams was charged with murder, later upgraded to capital murder. But when the defense questioned the autopsy, and prosecutors sought expert reviews of the case, one of the experts — Kentucky’s chief medical examiner, Tracey S. Corey — said she did not think Prince drowned. The boy had suffered six febrile seizures in the weeks before he died, and the incident had the indicators of sudden unexplained death in children, according to Corey. She became a defense witness at the trial.
Then in 2014, the chief medical examiner of Virginia, William T. Gormley, issued a new autopsy report, changing the cause of death from drowning to “undetermined.” Gormley wrote that the circumstances were suspicious, but, like Corey, he said he could not rule out a death by natural causes.
Prince William prosecutors Paul B. Ebert and James A. Willett stuck with DiAngelo, and Willett said in his opening statement that evidence would show Prince had been drowned. Much of the 12-day trial was dominated by the testimony of medical experts.
When Gormley was on the stand for the defense, Willett asked him whether it would be possible for a large man like Rams to suffocate a small boy like Prince and not leave any marks. Gormley said it was.
Suffocation became a new theme in the trial, and Bellows picked up on it. The former federal prosecutor delved into an 800-page book of exhibits, entered as evidence, and the taped 911 call to question Rams’s version of events. Documents show Rams told paramedics and police, although none testified to it at trial, that he had seen Prince having a seizure in his crib, just a few feet from his then-13-year-old son, Joaquin “Shadow” Rams Jr. He rushed in and carried the toddler to a bathtub to splash cold water on him because he was “really hot.”
But paramedics felt Prince was cold to the touch, and he had no heartbeat. He was taken to Prince William Medical Center, where his temperature was recorded at 91.2 degrees, 24 minutes after the 911 call began. His heartbeat wasn’t restored until 40 minutes after the call and he later died.
In his ruling, Bellows detailed the evidence about Prince’s body temperature, and agreed with many expert witnesses that febrile seizures could not have killed the boy.
“What the seizures did was provide the defendant the solution to a problem — how to cover up a murder that he intended to commit from the time he first put a half-million-dollar bounty on the head of his infant son,” Bellows wrote.
The judge ruled that Prince died from lack of oxygen to the brain and that this “likely occurred prior to Prince being placed in the crib by the defendant, and that by the time the defendant picked Prince out of the crib, he had already suffered irreversible brain damage.”
The three people in the house with Rams — his son Shadow and housemates Roger and Sue Jestice — said they only saw and heard Rams splash water on the boy briefly, not place him under water. But there was a period Rams was alone with the boy, before rushing him to the tub, which Willett said gave Rams “the opportunity” to kill Prince.
Prosecutors alleged that Rams’s motive for killing his son was the purchase of three life insurance policies on the newborn boy in 2011 totaling more than $524,000.
At trial, prosecutors have said that in 2012, Rams’s house in Bristow, Va., was in foreclosure — he and Shadow were living rent-free with the Jestices — and a $50,000 line of credit was exhausted and a private school tuition bill for Shadow unpaid. Rams appeared to have no job and hadn’t filed a tax return in years.
“Viewed in isolation, the purchase of life insurance is certainly not incriminating,” Bellows wrote. “In this case, however, there are a number of factors that make these purchases incriminating.”
Bellows also noted that, although the defense claimed that Rams bought the policies as college savings vehicles, one of the policies would have had a cash value of only $984 after 20 years. “Such a paltry cash-value sum also illustrates the hollowness of the assertion that these purchases were all about savings, and not about payouts upon death,” Bellows said.
The defense showed that Rams had a bank account, which he had a friend create to hide income and avoid paying taxes, which had $277,000 in deposits in the three years before his arrest, mostly from a business partner in California. They also said he was working to develop a gaming website. The defense acknowledged his debts but said that did not make him a murderer.
Ebert said the trial had been “a hard, long fight” and that Rams continues to be a suspect in the deaths of his mother and a former girlfriend. Rams was not charged in either death and has maintained his innocence.
Rams had previously collected more than $162,000 after the death of his mother in 2008, which was ruled a suicide, but was unable to collect on another life insurance policy after the unsolved slaying of his former girlfriend, Shawn Mason, in 2003.
“That’s the kind of person that doesn’t belong on the street,” Ebert said. “He’s the kind of person that doesn’t hesitate to kill if he’s benefiting.”