The 9-year-old boy went outside without his godmother's permission. His punishment was to sit in a bathtub as the woman filled it with five pots of boiling water.
When he emerged from the scalding water, the lower half of his body was covered in severe burns. The woman waited four days to take him to a hospital.
The facts read into the court record during Shamia Lawson's plea agreement in November were horrific, making her punishment yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court all the more shocking to city prosecutors and the boy's relatives: six months behind bars. Lawson, 25, had been caring for her godson for several years at her West Baltimore apartment. She also has a young daughter of her own - whom she may be able to keep in her home.
She temporarily lost custody of the girl after the boy was burned, but city child protective services "saw fit to return her daughter to her," Nicholas Comaromi, Lawson's defense attorney, said in court yesterday. Lawson had been out on bail until yesterday.
"This is a person we want walking streets and raising another child?" asked Assistant State's Attorney Julie Drake after the court hearing yesterday. "I was astounded and bitterly disappointed at the sentence."
The boy's relatives also expressed disbelief about the jail term. His grandfather, Alvin Fairley, noted plainly, "You get more time for hurting a dog than you do for hurting a child."
Lawson originally faced six charges, including child abuse. She was convicted of first-degree assault, a crime that carries a maximum possible penalty of 25 years in prison. Under the terms of her plea arrangement, she could not have received more than 10 years.
Arrest was her first
The college graduate has no previous convictions - or even arrests - so the sentencing guidelines in her case called for four to nine years of prison time.
Comaromi asked the judge not to give his client any jail time. Drake made no sentencing recommendation, saying she would leave it in the judge's hands.
Circuit Judge John M. Glynn called the case "troubling," "disturbing" and "bad," and said there had to be "serious consequences for this."
Then he sentenced Lawson to 10 years in prison, with all but six months suspended. Explaining why in court, Glynn said, "The real point of a sentence like this is to deal with the defendant into the future."
He said he didn't think putting Lawson behind bars for several years "would be helping the situation" and said it would be up to the state-run Department of Social Services, which oversees Baltimore's child protective services, to decide what to do with the boy and the woman's biological daughter.
Lawson's pre-sentencing investigator, who works for the court system, recommended that the woman's godson, now 10, not be left in her care and that "serious consideration should be given" to whether her daughter is safe with her.
It was not clear last night who has custody of the girl now. The boy was back with his biological mother, who had asked her friend Lawson to raise him while she dealt with drug addiction, Lawson's attorney said. Fairley said his daughter is now capable of raising the boy.
The Sun is not naming the boy because he was the victim of abuse. He was not in court yesterday.
Lawson apologized in court for "a series of poor decisions."
"I am sorry what for what happened to [the boy]. I loved him."
But she maintained that the scalding was not a punishment for his behavior, saying that the apartment had hot water problems and that they routinely added boiled water to raise the bath temperature.
When she pleaded guilty, she entered an "Alford plea," meaning she did not concede guilt but did acknowledge prosecutors had enough evidence to convict her.
Drake's account of the April 12 crime was read aloud at the plea hearing and uncorrected in court by Lawson or her defense attorney.
At yesterday's sentencing hearing, Drake repeated some of the saddest details.
A tragedy unfolds
She said Lawson "forced [the boy] into a tub of water and poured five pots of boiling water into the tub. ... She pushed him into the water and threatened to beat him with a belt if he got out."
When the boy emerged, Lawson ordered him to clean the kitchen, but he said his blistered feet hurt too much. "So what?" was her response, Drake said.
Four days later, Lawson took the badly injured child to Howard County General Hospital and gave fake names. She "told different and convoluted lies" to hospital workers and to police, said Drake, who called Lawson "a talented liar."
Alone with a hospital worker, the boy told the truth, Drake said.
Lawson's pre-sentencing investigator was "profoundly disturbed" by the deception, especially in light of Lawson's education: She earned a criminal justice degree at Coppin State, according to a report presented in court.
Now she is in a University of Baltimore master's program, though attorney Nicholas Comaromi did not say which one.
Fairley, the boy's grandfather, dismissed Lawson's resume, though he said he thought the judge was influenced by it.
"No matter how educated you are, child abuse is child abuse," he said.
Fairley said the boy is still undergoing treatment and rehabilitation. He has had several skin-graft surgeries, and doctors worry about permanent damage.
Several of Lawson's associates said she was not abusive.
The father of her daughter called her "the best mother possible. She would never hit nobody."
At least one other person seemed convinced of Lawson's parenting abilities: A Baltimore Department of Social Services worker testified on her behalf. The woman, a parenting class teacher, said Lawson had completed seven parenting classes since enrolling on her own Nov. 13. She has five to go.
"She is always on time and participates," the woman said.
Lawson told the judge she wants her daughter back.
"Please have mercy on me," she asked the judge. "I need to be in my daughter's life."