A number of local citizens have raised questions about the sentencing of Ria Ramkissoon, mother of 16-month-old Javon Thompson, who died of dehydration and starvation while living with a cult in West Baltimore. In order to understand her sentence, it is important to understand the facts that formed the basis for Ms. Ramkissoon's guilty plea and the trial of her co-defendants.
In 2006, Ms. Ramkissoon was persuaded by a friend to join a household run by a woman who called herself "Queen Antoinette." Ms. Ramkissoon was told that this was a Christian household where she could devote herself to the care of her child, Javon, then 7 months. Toni Sloan, aka "Queen Antoinette," ran her household under a strict set of rules, which she said were based on biblical principles. As time passed, the rules multiplied and became more restrictive. Eventually, all members were required to give up their personal possessions (including identification), as well as contact with old friends and family. The children were not permitted to attend school, and the women were expected to stay home and care for the children. With the exception of Queen Antoinette, her daughter Trevia Williams ("Princess Trevia"), and her chief aide, Marcus Cobbs ("Prince Marcus"), no one could leave the house, unless they were accompanied by another member. Queen Antoinette claimed that God spoke directly to her; failure to follow her rules would result in damnation.
One morning in early 2007, Javon, then 16 months, refused to say "amen" after the blessing before breakfast. Queen Antoinette told the others that Javon possessed a "spirit of rebellion" and that God told her that the way to purge Javon of this evil spirit was to deprive him of food and water until he said "amen." As Javon cried from hunger, Queen Antoinette warned the household members not to feed him. Ms. Ramkissoon was so distraught over this that Queen Antoinette ordered Ms. Williams to take control of Javon; she did not want Ms. Ramkissoon to disobey her order. When it became clear that Javon was on the verge of death, he was returned to his mother, and he died in her arms.
After Javon's death, Queen Antoinette ordered everyone to kneel and pray for his resurrection. God would bring Javon back to life, she said, but only if they had enough faith. As the days passed and Javon's body began to decompose, the only person who remained by his body was his mother. When Ms. Ramkissoon wondered why Javon had not risen from the dead, Queen Antoinette told her she wasn't a good enough mother and she didn't have enough faith. Ms. Ramkissoon believed her. The cult members moved to Philadelphia, where Javon's body was placed in a suitcase inside a locked shed. It was left there when the group moved again, to New York. As of the trial date, Ms. Ramkissoon still believed that Javon could be resurrected.
Ms. Ramkissoon received a sentence of 20 years, with all but the time she has already served suspended, and five years' probation. Pursuant to her plea agreement, she testified at the trial of Queen Antoinette, Trevia Williams and Marcus Cobbs, helping to secure convictions of all three on charges of second-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death. Also pursuant to the agreement, Ms. Ramkissoon was immediately driven to a residential treatment facility, where she will be held indefinitely. At Ms. Ramkissoon's insistence, the court agreed that if Javon is resurrected, she can come back to court and withdraw her guilty plea.
Why did I agree to let Ms. Ramkissoon withdraw her guilty plea if Javon is resurrected? If Ms. Ramkissoon's religious beliefs are correct, and Javon resurrects, it would be legally appropriate. That said, I do not share Ms. Ramkissoon's religious beliefs, and I believe the likelihood of Javon's resurrection in my lifetime is too remote to be a concern. I carefully specified on the record that this condition involved resurrection of Javon's body — not reincarnation into another body.
Why did Ms. Ramkissoon receive probation? There are a number of reasons why one co-defendant receives a more lenient sentence than the others, several of which applied to Ms. Ramkissoon's case.
First, it was clear to everyone that the central and most culpable defendant in this case was Queen Antoinette. She was the leader of the cult. She issued the order to withhold food and water from Javon. She warned the others not to feed Javon and removed Javon from Ms. Ramkissoon's control. Our first priority was to convict Queen Antoinette of child abuse and murder and to secure a substantial prison term in her case. In order to do that, it was necessary to obtain eye-witness testimony, and Ms. Ramkissoon was willing to tell the truth.
Second, and equally important, I believe that justice was best served by placing Ms. Ramkissoon in a residential treatment facility rather than in prison. It was clear to everyone who interviewed Ms. Ramkissoon that she had been indoctrinated through classic "brainwashing" techniques into a cult. She had no malice or ill will toward Javon; quite the contrary, she believed Queen Antoinette was acting in his best interests. Nonetheless, she was extremely distraught when Javon began showing signs of distress. After Javon's death, Ms. Ramkissoon spent weeks by his decomposing body, praying for his resurrection. This was not an individual who was acting out of a classic criminal intent (e.g. malice, anger, desire for revenge or gain), but rather a mother who has and will suffer anguish over the result of her inaction.
It should be noted that the main reason Ms. Ramkissoon was not found "not criminally responsible" is because her delusions were of a religious nature and were shared by other people; therefore they could not be classified as a "mental disorder."
However, Ms. Ramkissoon was not simply released to freedom. A condition of her probation is that she remain in and successfully complete a long-term, in-patient, residential treatment program. Should she leave the facility against medical advice, fail to successfully complete the program, or violate any other condition of her probation, Ms. Ramkissoon could be incarcerated for almost 20 years.
As a prosecutor, my ethical obligation is to do justice, not to secure a conviction or the maximum possible sentence. In the case of Ria Ramkissoon, I believe the guilty plea and sentence were just.
In other circumstances, I would make different sentencing recommendations. When I prosecuted Mark Castillo for drowning his three children, I asked for and received a sentence of three consecutive life terms without parole, the harshest sentence the defendant could have received.
Justice requires a meticulous review of the facts and the evidence, the role of each defendant, and the wishes of the family members. That is what I did in this case. I respect the fact that not everyone will agree with me, but I would ask those who disagree to take a careful look at the factors I considered before rushing to judgment.
(Editor's note: On May 18, "Queen Antoinette" was sentenced to 50 years incarceration. Both Trevia Williams and Marcus Cobbs were sentenced to 50 years incarceration, with all but 15 years suspended.)
Julie Drake is division chief in the Felony Family Violence Division of the Baltimore state's attorney's office. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.