Experts: Cult member not insane despite odd plea

Associated Press/March 31, 2009

Baltimore - A former religious cult member who helped starve her son to death believes he will be resurrected, but legal experts say her extreme faith doesn't make her criminally insane. The mother made an extraordinary deal with prosecutors Monday that her guilty plea to child abuse resulting in death will be withdrawn if her 1-year-old son, Javon Thompson, comes back to life. Law experts and psychiatrists said there was no problem with the agreement because Ria Ramkissoon, 22, was mentally competent and freely entered into the deal, and extreme religious beliefs aren't deemed insane by law.

"To say that someone is crazy because they have beliefs is very difficult," said Dr. Jonas Rappeport, a retired forensic psychiatrist and the former chief medical officer for Baltimore Circuit Court. "If I believe that God wants me to starve my child, that gets close to the edge, but it's very questionable as to calling that an illness that would exonerate someone for a crime."

The boy died more than two years ago when cult members stopped feeding him because he refused to say "Amen" after a meal, according to a statement of facts. His body was hidden in a suitcase packed with mothballs and fabric softener sheets behind a home in Philadelphia for more than a year.

On Monday, Ramkissoon answered a series of questions from Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory about whether she understood what she was doing when she pleaded guilty. A court psychiatrist wrote she was both competent to stand trial and criminally responsible for her son's death.

David Gray, a law professor at the University of Maryland, said he had never heard of prosecutors making a promise they knew they wouldn't have to keep. But he couldn't envision a legal challenge to the plea deal.

The psychiatrist was right to find Ramkissoon competent despite her insistence on her son's resurrection, Gray said.

"There is a long-standing distinction in the criminal law between fanatical religious belief and hearing commands from God," he said. "If she just subscribes to extreme religious beliefs, then that's not insanity. That's a decision to violate the law."

The plea deal was a good one for Ramkissoon, who was initially charged with first-degree murder. She received a suspended 20-year sentence and only has to remain in custody until she testifies against four co-defendants who are charged with first-degree murder in her son's death. She could be out of prison in August, serving about a year behind bars.

"Ria will be out of jail in a matter of a couple months and will still benefit from psychiatric services, cult deprogramming and whatever other services would be beneficial to her," said her attorney Steven D. Silverman.

Prosecutors are eager to have her testify because their case against the other cult members is largely circumstantial.

The plea agreement also calls for Ramkissoon to meet with Rick Ross, who has studied cults for more than 25 years and counsels former cult members. Ross said cult members often take years to realize how they've been manipulated. They exhibit behavior that "seems crazy to us because we're outside the control of the group and the environment of the group," Ross said. "In reality, what we're actually seeing is an individual under undue influence."

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