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Psychologist: Mother not criminally responsible in death of son on swing

The Washington Post The Washington Post 22/02/2016 Keith L. Alexander, Fenit Nirappil

Romechia Simms and her son, Ji’Aire Lee, 3, two months before his death. © Courtesy of family Romechia Simms and her son, Ji’Aire Lee, 3, two months before his death.

A court-appointed forensic psychologist has concluded that the Maryland mother who was found in May pushing her dead toddler on a swing suffers from schizophrenia and was not criminally responsible in the child’s death.

Romechia Simms, 25, was charged with manslaughter, first-degree child abuse and other charges associated with the death of her 3-year-old son, Ji’Aire Lee. Simms was slowly pushing the boy on a swing in a La Plata, Md., park for 40­ hours last May, including during the rain, when he died of hypothermia and dehydration.

Finding a defendant not criminally responsible is Maryland’s version of not guilty by reason of insanity. Such defendants are given mental health treatment as opposed to a prison term.

Simms’s trial is scheduled to begin Monday in Charles County, but it’s unclear how the report could affect the case and whether the judge will declare Simms not criminally responsible or reject the findings and move forward with the proceedings.

In a 14-page report obtained by The Washington Post, psychologist Teresa Grant of the Maryland Office of Forensic Services wrote that although she found Simms competent to stand trial, Simms’s mental disorder caused her to “lack substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of her conduct or to conform her behavior to meet the requirements of the law.”

Grant determined Simms is not a danger and should be allowed to remain in the community as opposed to housed in a mental institution.

When contacted by The Post, Grant declined to comment on her findings. Prosecutor Tony Covington also declined to comment.

Simms was released from custody in December after her family posted bail, and she has been living with her mother, Vontasha Simms, and teenage brother in Waldorf, Md.

Vontasha Simms says that she hopes prosecutors agree with the court-appointed psychologist’s assessment. Her daughter continues to mourn for Ji’Aire, Simms said.

“Now that this tragedy has happened, Romechia should not be the one to pay for it,” Simms, 47, said. “Life is never going to be normal again without Ji’Aire. She can only try to pick up the pieces and continue on with her counseling, maybe for the rest of her life.”

Romechia Simms’s public defender, Michael Beach, said he hoped his client would not be institutionalized, which he says would be a “big step back” in her improvement since being released from jail.

“We are doing everything we can to try to maintain her highly successful support network that she has got now that is really working well and keeping her healthy,” Beach said.

Vontasha Simms says since her daughter’s release, she has been reading, singing gospel songs and spending time with relatives. She said her daughter may go back to school or part-time work if her case ends without incarceration.

“It’s good for the public to have the opportunity to see that even when someone goes through that type of tragedy — and she’s still suffering and going through counseling — that you are able to be productive,” the mother said.

Romechia Simms graduated from high school in 2008. She attended Bowie State University for two years and majored in English with a concentration in secondary education. Simms aspired to become a teacher, according to the report, but dropped out of school when she became pregnant.

The report provided new details of the boy’s death. When police found Simms in the park pushing her son on the swing, she told the officers the boy was “just sick” and was “having trouble breathing.” The child was seated in the swing, his head tilted back and his mouth open. His arms and legs appeared stiff, and he was not moving.

According to the report, Simms told the psychologist that she began showing signs of mental illness in late 2014. At that time, Simms said she began having “visions” and thought people were knocking on her door. Simms said that in February 2015, while living in the District, she called D.C. police to report that people were trying to kill her. She said when police arrived, they laughed at her. Her mother then took her to MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center for evaluation, and she was discharged and ordered to follow up with a local psychiatrist.

In April, she was admitted into Southern Maryland Hospital’s counseling service, Regenerations, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and prescribed medication. She told therapists there she believed people were trying to hurt her. She also admitted to smoking marijuana several times a week at the time, according to the report.

A month later, she was arrested at Willis Memorial park.

At the time of Ji’Aire’s death, he and Simms were staying with her mother at a La Plata motel.

After her arrest, Simms told police that two women removed her from the hotel and gave the two of them an unknown drug. She also told the officers that on the day she was in the park with her son, she had stopped taking her medication for “a couple” of days.

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