In an unusual development for a murder case, an alleged member of a religious cult accused in the starvation death of a toddler was released from custody Monday and will remain free with minimal supervision until trial.
Steven L. Bynum, 42, is charged with first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in the death of 1-year-old Javon Thompson. According to prosecutors, Bynum and four other members of a religious group called 1 Mind Ministries - including Javon's mother - conspired to deny food and water to the boy in December 2006.
Cult members were angry that Javon did not say "Amen" after meals, authorities said. After he died, they allegedly put his body in a suitcase, which was kept in a shed behind a home in Philadelphia for more than a year before police found it in April.
Defense attorney Catherine Flynn said she argued at a bail review hearing Friday that Bynum was not a flight risk because he traveled to Baltimore from New York to turn himself in when he learned of the charges he faces. She also said Bynum, who has no criminal history, does not present a continuing threat to public safety.
Baltimore Circuit Judge A. John Howard agreed, ordering Bynum released on his own recognizance. Bynum had been held without bail. He remained in the city jail over the weekend because of a paperwork delay but was freed Monday afternoon, said Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Prosecutors said they could not recall another defendant charged with first-degree murder who was released on his own recognizance and described an audible gasp in the courtroom after Howard issued his ruling.
"We were just absolutely astonished," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore State's Attorney's office.
The only restrictions placed on Bynum were that he avoid contact with his co-defendants and check in periodically with the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services, attorneys said. Bynum plans to remain in Baltimore, Flynn said.
Bynum had been ordered held without bail in two previous bail reviews. Prosecutors argued Friday that his bail status should not change because there had been no change in circumstance, such as a reduction to the charges against him or the continuation of a trial date.
Flynn merely asked Howard to set "a reasonable bail" and acknowledged it was "rare" for someone charged with first-degree murder to be released on his own recognizance. But she told the judge she believes her client has been overcharged.
"The allegations are that people didn't feed the child, but there's no allegation that my client affirmatively participated in that agreement," Flynn said. "In fact, there's evidence that he disagreed with that conduct and argued about it."
Flynn noted that Bynum did not have custody of Javon and was not responsible for his welfare.
"The state is focusing on the fact that he didn't call police, he didn't call (social services). But that's not a crime," Flynn said.
Four other members of the now-defunct 1 Mind Ministries - Ria Ramkissoon, Javon's mother; Queen Antoinette, the alleged cult leader; Trevia Williams; and Marcus Cobbs - remain held without bail. Like Bynum, the other four are charged with first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death.
The five are scheduled for trial Jan. 28.