National News

Prosecutors won't seek death penalty in toddler's death

Posted January 9

— Prosecutors in Virginia have agreed not to seek the death penalty against a man accused of killing his 1-year-old son for the insurance money.

The agreement reached Friday between prosecutors and defense lawyers for Joaquin Rams also requires Rams to give up his right to a jury trial in favor of a bench trial. Judge Randy Bellows will now decide Rams' guilt or innocence.

Rams is scheduled to go on trial in March for the 2012 death of his son, Prince McLeod Rams. He has been in jail awaiting trial since 2013.

Prince William County prosecutors say he drowned the boy to collect more than $500,000 in insurance policies he took out on the boy's life. Prosecutors also suspect Rams in the deaths of his mother and former girlfriend.

Rams has maintained his innocence, and said he only gave the boy a cold bath after he went into a seizure.

A medical examiner who ruled Prince's death a drowning had her finding overturned by a superior, who said the cause was undetermined. Both sides now plan to present expert testimony on the cause of Prince's death.

Prince William Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert said Monday he had mixed emotions about abandoning the death penalty, and that the deal reached Friday was the result of long discussions with defense lawyers.

"It's a complicated case, and I felt the court would be in a better position to provide a fair trial to the state as well as to the accused," Ebert said.

Defendants are often leery of waiving their right to a jury trial, for the simple fact that a jury trial requires prosecutors to convince all 12 jurors of a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A bench trial requires convincing only the judge.

Rams' lawyers, asked for comment, issued a statement indicating they are comfortable in this case with a bench trial.

"Our position has always been that Joaquin Rams is innocent," defense lawyer Christopher Leibig said in the statement. "The case turns on complicated medical evidence, and we believe that the judge, as opposed to a death-qualified jury, is best equipped to handle it."

Leibig's reference to a "death-qualified jury" refers to the fact that the law automatically disqualifies potential jurors who express opposition to the death penalty from serving in a capital murder case.

Ebert says the deal he reached with Rams' lawyers would not bar him from seeking the death penalty if prosecutors decide to bring charges for either the 2008 death of Rams' mother, Alma Collins, or the 2003 shooting death of his ex-girlfriend, Shawn K. Mason.

Prince's mother, Hera McLeod, said she did not object when prosecutors informed her that they were considering an agreement that takes 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 in a phone interview. "I just hope the judge makes the right decision."

McLeod and Rams split up shortly after Prince's birth. A Maryland court granted Rams unsupervised visitation of Prince, over McLeod's objections and fears for her son's safety. Prince died on his fourth unsupervised visit with Rams.

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