Romechia Simms, the Maryland mother found pushing her dead child on a swing in La Plata last year, will remain free and continue receiving mental-health treatment instead of going to prison.
Simms, 25, was hearing voices as she pushed her son, Ji’Aire Lee, in a bucket swing for more than 40 hours, including in the rain, in May. The 3-year-old died of hypothermia and dehydration. Under a plea agreement accepted in Charles County Circuit Court on Monday, a judge found Simms not criminally responsible, Maryland’s version of an insanity defense.
In court, Simms, who has schizophrenia, wiped tears from her face as a prosecutor detailed the evidence against her, describing how the boy was taken to the medical examiner’s office still sitting in the swing because his body was too stiff to remove. A sheriff’s deputy appeared emotional, and people sitting in the back row of the courthouse for unrelated cases gasped.
“Did I mean for any of this to happen? No. It’s just an unfortunate situation,” Simms said.
Simms entered an Alford plea to involuntary manslaughter, meaning that she didn’t admit fault but acknowledged that the state had enough evidence to prove its case. The judge then found her not criminally responsible and entered an order allowing her to remain free under a long list of conditions, including monitoring by state psychologists, avoiding unsupervised contact with children and submitting to blood tests to verify she is on medication.
Public defender Elizabeth Connell said the agreement to keep Simms in the community represented a “progressive way of thinking” and was a “testament to the progress of science and society.”
Charles County State’s Attorney Tony Covington interjected to make clear that he was not happy with the outcome of the case but did not have enough evidence to overcome the conclusions of three psychologists who found Simms not criminally responsible. He said the boy didn’t have to die.
“As a direct result of her not taking her medicine two days leading up to this episode, Ji’Aire is dead,” the prosecutor told Judge Hayward West, “essentially, and I can’t think of any other word to use for it, your honor, tortured to death.”
Simms had been hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia a month before her son’s death. After her arrest, she told officers that she had been off her medication for a “couple of days” when she went to Wills Memorial Park in La Plata with her son, a chubby boy nicknamed “Sumo.” At the time, the mother and son were living at a La Plata motel.
Connell said Simms had stopped taking medication because she believed it wasn’t working and didn’t understand the gravity of her illness. While Simms was at the park, she found herself incapable of lifting her son out of the swing and heard voices telling her that help was on the way and to stay put, according to Connell.
“She was just trapped,” Connell said. “What was happening was a mental breakdown, mental illness taking over her.”
Teresa Grant, a state psychologist who examined Simms, wrote in a 14-page report that because of her mental disorder, Simms lacked “substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of her conduct or to conform her behavior to meet the requirements of the law.”
Simms was briefly hospitalized after her son’s death and started attending therapy and working part time at a Starbucks before she was arrested in September on charges of manslaughter and first-degree child abuse. She has been living with her mother in Waldorf, Md., since her family posted bail in December.
Romechia Simms declined to comment after the court hearing. Her mother, Vontasha Simms, said her daughter has an agonizing road to recovery ahead of her.
“The right decision was made; it’s still a long journey, and Ji’Aire is not here. Hopefully, this never happens to anyone again,” said Vontasha Simms, who wore a shirt with a photo of her smiling grandson.
Vontasha Simms has been pushing for mental-health reform in Maryland, saying authorities failed to intervene when she raised concerns about her daughter’s mental health and erratic behavior.
After the hearing, Covington, the prosecutor, told reporters that Simms’s relatives and officials could have done more to prevent Ji’Aire’s death.
He blamed Vontasha Simms for not keeping better watch over her daughter. He asked why social service agencies didn’t follow up to ensure Ji’Aire’s safety after Romechia was hospitalized because of an episode in February.
And he asked why a D.C. judge agreed to allow Romechia Simms to have partial custody of the child just 11 days before his death when there was a history of mental-health issues. Ji’Aire’s father, James “Donnell” Lee, had raised concerns about his former partner’s mental stability, but later told the judge that Simms was not an unfit parent and offered to share custody.
If Romechia Simms fails to follow the conditions of her release, she faces institutionalization at a mental-health facility.