Four years after Prince William County, Va., prosecutors launched a capital murder case against Joaquin S. Rams for the death of his 15-month-old son, the commonwealth’s attorney has now withdrawn the death penalty from the case, and agreed to have the case decided by a judge rather than a jury.
The decision to take capital punishment off the table is the latest dramatic twist in the long search for answers in the death of Prince McLeod Rams, who fell unconscious in his father’s Manassas City home in October 2012 and died a day later. The state medical examiner ruled that Prince had drowned, and when prosecutors learned that his father had taken out three life insurance policies on the boy totaling more than $520,000, they charged him with murder in January 2013.
Rams, 44, has been in jail ever since, adamant that he is innocent. He is supported by two housemates and his teenaged son who were all in the house with him when Prince went into crisis, and say Rams did not drown the boy. On the other side are Prince’s mother, Hera McLeod, and Prince William authorities who note that two other people close to Rams with life insurance policies died suddenly and suspiciously, and that Rams was in financial straits when his son died.
In the meantime, the lead attorneys on both sides of the case have stepped down, the judge suddenly recused himself last year, and the medical examiner’s office changed their mind about the cause of death: after reexamining the autopsy results, the chief Virginia medical examiner in 2014 reversed the cause from drowning to “undetermined.” The case seemed to set up as a battle of medical experts. But prosecutors then disclosed that they planned to use four jailhouse informants against Rams, two of whom were initially judged mentally unfit to stand trial in their own cases. They also said that if Rams were acquitted in this case, they would prosecute him in one of the other two suspicious deaths.
Still, removing the death penalty from Prince’s case is an enormous development, and Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert said “that’s a decision I made. I had mixed emotions on it.” Long one of Virginia’s most ardent prosecutors in pursuing capital punishment, Ebert said that “we struck an agreement [with the defense] after a lot of discussions. Take death off the table. Waive a jury.” A judge could still impose a death penalty without a jury, but Ebert declined to discuss the merits of the case. “As it got closer to trial,” the state’s longest serving prosecutor said, “and the scheduling problems we were having with witnesses, we felt this was the best tack to take.”
Rams’s attorneys filed a motion for a non-jury trial on Friday, but under Virginia law both sides must agree to waive a jury and the judge must then grant the request. Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows, who was assigned to the case in August after Prince William Circuit Court Judge Craig Johnston stepped down, then heard from Ebert and Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney James Willett, who told the judge that the prosecution agreed to the jury waiver, and that they had decided not to seek the death penalty in the event Rams is convicted of capital murder, according to court records.
Bellows asked prosecutors if they had consulted with Prince’s family on the death penalty decision and Ebert “stated that he personally consulted with Ms. McLeod.” The judge did not have a decision to make on the death penalty, but did then grant the request to hear the case himself, without a jury.
“This case,” Ebert said Monday, “is a case that takes someone with expertise to wade through all the medical testimony” concerning whether or not Prince drowned. The defense experts will claim that Prince had a fatal seizure, having had a number of febrile seizures in the weeks before he died. “I think it’s the commonwealth’s position that the case would be better tried to a judge than a jury,” Ebert said.
Lead defense attorney Christopher Leibig agreed, saying, “The case turns on complicated medical evidence, and we believe the judge, as opposed to a death-qualified jury, is best equipped to handle it.” He declined to answer questions about the removal of the death penalty, other than to say, “Our position is and has always been that Joaquin Rams is innocent of the charges.”
Ebert said he spoke with McLeod, and “she seems to think this is a good way to go.” McLeod told the Associated Press that she did not object to having the death penalty off the table, saying she trusts the prosecutors’ judgment. “I know (the prosecutors) are motivated to make sure he never gets out,” she said. “I just hope the judge makes the right decision.”
McLeod met Rams through an online dating site in 2010, and were engaged to be married when Prince was born in July 2011. They split up soon after, and a custody battle over Prince was fought in Montgomery County Circuit Court, where McLeod lived. A judge awarded sole custody to McLeod in March 2012, but allowed Rams to have supervised visits, and later unsupervised visits. It was on one of those unsupervised trips to Manassas City, on October 20, 2012, that Prince fell unconscious.
Rams has claimed that he yelled for one of his housemates to dial 911, and that he took Prince into a bathtub to splash water on him to cool him down. When paramedics arrived, they found the toddler naked and wet on the floor, and he was not revived for about 40 minutes, court records show. He was flown to Inova Fairfax Hospital and placed on life support, where he died the next night.
Rams and his housemates appear to have cooperated initially with police and their searches of the house. But Manassas City police had always suspected him in the 2003 shooting death of Cheryl Mason, his ex-girlfriend and mother of his teenaged son, Joaquin Jr. Rams had always denied involvement, and a $142,000 life insurance benefit was placed in trust for Joaquin Jr.
Then in 2008, Rams’s mother was found asphyxiated in her bed in Bristow, Va., a plastic bag over her head and a suicide note nearby. The medical examiner and Prince William County police ruled the death a suicide, and Rams collected a $162,000 death benefit from his mother’s employer.
“Either he’s the most unlucky person around, or he’s a serial killer,” McLeod told The Post in 2013.
But prosecutors have said in court filings that by 2012 that money was gone and Rams was deeply in debt. He then took out three separate life insurance policies on his toddler son, totaling $524,000. His lawyers said in 2013 he did that while also taking out a policy on himself, to demonstrate financial stability during his custody battle with McLeod over Prince.
The murder trial was set to begin on Feb. 21, with at least two weeks of jury selection to obtain a “death qualified” jury, and was scheduled to last about two months. Since expert witnesses were not scheduled to testify until March, the trial has now been reset for March 13. Ebert said the prosecution’s case will only take a week, and that the trial should conclude in a month or less.