Prosecutor strikes back in cult case

The Baltimore Sun/May 18, 2010

Few Baltimore coure cases have generated more interest and more disgust than that of the mother starved her 1-year-old son to death at the behest of a religious cult because he refused to say "Amen" before a meal.

Ria Ramkissoon, 23, pleaded guilty to child abuse in the death of Javon Thompson, who died in East Baltimore and whose body was found in a suitcase in Philadelphia. The mother admitted denying food and water to the child over the course of a week.

She was sentenced last month but did not get any more jail time; the judge suspended what had remained of her 20 years sentence and she spent just the time she had been in jail since 2008. The idea was to get the mother to testify against three other cult members, who were sentenced today to a total 150 years in prison.

Assistant State's Attorney Julie Drake, facing criticism among bloggers for the mother's plea deal, penned an unusual letter that she wanted made public:

This is in response to e-mail messages that have been forwarded to me by citizens who have questions or concerns regarding the sentencing of Ria Ramkissoon. Ria Ramkissoon was the mother of 16 month old Javon Thompson, who died of dehydration and starvation while living with a cult in West Baltimore. I am happy to respond to questions and comments regarding Ms. Ramkissoon's closed case, but first it is important to understand the facts which formed the basis for Ms. Ramkissoon's guilty plea and the trial of her co-defendants.

Here is the rest of her response:

In April of 2006, Javon Thompson, then 7 months old, lived with his mother (Ria Ramkissoon), his grandmother (Seeta Newton), and other relatives here in Baltimore City. Ms. Ramkissoon was in school, studying to become a pharmacy technician. However, she had two desires. First, she wanted to be able to stay home and care for Javon full-time. Second, although she had been raised in Hindu faith, Ms. Ramkissoon had converted to Christianity, and wanted to live in a Christian household. Around that time 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.

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 birth certificates and identification), as well as contact with old friends and family. Members were forbidden to dress in colors other than white, khaki or blue. The children were not permitted to attend school and the women were expected to stay home and home-school 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 had appointed her queen and spoke directly to her; failure to follow her rules would result in damnation.

One morning in early 2007, Javon Thompson, then 16 months old, 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". At first, Javon became more hungry and irritable. As he cried, Queen Antoinette warned the household members not to feed him. Ms. Ramkissoon was so distraught over this that Queen Antoinette ordered Trevia Williams to take control of Javon - she did not want Ria 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. When Javon did not respond initially to the group's prayers, they placed his body in one of the bedrooms. As the days passed, and Javon's body began to decompose, the only person who remained by his body, praying, reading and singing to Javon, was his mother. When Ms. Ramkissoon wondered why Javon had not risen from the dead, Queen Antoinette told her that it was her fault - she wasn't a good enough mother and she didn't have enough faith. Ms. Ramkissoon believed her.

After a visit from the landlord, Queen Antoinette informed the group that God had told her that it was time to move to Philadelphia. At the insistence of Ms. Ramkissoon, who still believed that Javon would be resurrected, his decaying body was placed in a green suitcase which was taken with the group to Philadelphia. The suitcase was secured in a locked shed in Philadelphia when the group moved on to New York. Meanwhile, Seeta Newton had filed a missing persons report for Ria and Javon. Ultimately the authorities were able to piece the cases together, located Javon's body, and arrested the cult members. Ria Ramkissoon, Queen Antoinette, Trevia Williams and Marcus Cobbs have been in jail since their arrest. As of the trial date, Ms. Ramkissoon still believed that Javon could be resurrected.

On March 30, 2009, Ms. Ramkissoon pled guilty to child abuse resulting in the death of Javon Thompson. The basis of her guilty plea was her failure to feed Javon or seek medical treatment, after the point when feeding would have been dangerous. Under Maryland law, her admittedly sincere religious beliefs did not constitute a defense. Pursuant to the terms of her plea agreement, Ms. Ramkissoon was required to (1) testify truthfully against Queen Antoinette, Trevia Williams, and Marcus Cobbs at their trial, and (2) participate in and successfully complete a long-term, in-patient program in a residential treatment facility selected by the State's Attorney's Office. At Ms. Ramkissoon's insistence, the court agreed that if Javon is resurrected (not reincarnated), she can come back to court and withdraw her guilty plea. Ms. Ramkissoon received a sentence of 20 years, with all but the time she has already served suspended, and 5 years probation. 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. Immediately after her sentencing and release from Baltimore City Detention Center, Ms. Ramkissoon was driven to the residential treatment facility where she will be held indefinitely.

I will attempt to summarize and answer the questions I have received regarding Ms. Ramkissoon's case.

(1) Why did Ria Ramkissoon receive probation instead of a lengthy jail sentence? Isn't this just a "slap on the wrist"?

There are a number of reasons why one co-defendant receives a more lenient sentence than the others. There were several factors 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 was the individual who issued the order to withhold food and water from Javon. Queen Antoinette was the defendant who warned the others not to feed Javon, and who removed Javon from Ms. Ramkissoon's control in order to ensure that she did not feed him. In order to secure justice for Javon, our first priority was to convict Queen Antoinette of child abuse and murder, and secure a substantial prison term in her case. In order to do that, it was necessary to obtain eye-witness testimony regarding what had occurred. Although Ms. Ramkissoon did not want to testify against anyone, she was willing to tell the truth. Her truthful testimony was essential to obtaining Queen Antoinette's conviction.

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 "brain-washing" 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 by attempting to free him from an "evil spirit". Nonetheless, she was extremely distraught when Javon began showing signs of distress, and Queen Antoinette actually removed him from her control in order to ensure that she didn't disobey her order. After Javon's death, Ms. Ramkissoon spent weeks by his decomposing body, praying for the resurrection Queen Antoinette told her would occur if only she had sufficient faith. 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 is important to note that Ms. Ramkissoon's attorney sought a finding of "not criminally responsible" for his client. (This is Maryland's alternative to the old insanity defense.) The main reason she 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". This opinion was provided by the State's psychiatrist. The defense was prepared to present expert testimony that she was "not criminally responsible".

It is also important to note that 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. This residential treatment facility was selected by DeVera Gilden, L.C.S.W.-C., a clinical forensic social worker, who works for the State's Attorney's Office in the Felony Family Violence Division. After reviewing many options, and visiting this facility, it was her judgement that this intensive program would offer the most appropriate supervision and therapeutic services necessary for Ms. Ramkissoon's slow process of rehabilitation. Should she leave the facility "AMA", fail to successfully complete the program, or violate any other condition of her probation, she could be incarcerated for 20 years (with credit for the 19 months she has already spent in jail).

(2) Why did the judge agree to let Ms. Ramkissoon withdraw her guilty plea if Javon is resurrected?

If Ms. Ramkissoon's religious beliefs are correct, and Javon resurrects, then it would be legally appropriate for her attorney to file either a "Bill of Actual Innocence" or a "Motion to Reconsider Based on Newly Acquired Evidence". 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). Since Ms. Ramkissoon insisted on this condition, the State had no objection to it. The court simply accepted the plea agreement between the State and Defense.

(3) Did Ms. Ramkisson receive special treatment because she is not "white"?


(4) Did Ms. Ramkissoon receive special treatment because she is a submissive woman?

No. Marcus Cobbs was offered a plea deal, which his attorney rejected.

(5) Where was Javon's father?

Javon's father has not been involved in his son's life to any significant degree. At the time of Javon's birth, he was in jail. He has been physically abusive to Ms. Ramkissoon and other members of her family.

(6) Will the co-defendants receive probation?

(7) Is the prosecutor too lenient?

As a prosecutor, my ethical obligation is to do justice, not to secure a conviction or the maximum possible sentence. n the case of Ria Ramkissoon, I believe the guilty plea and sentence were just - to her, to her mother, Seeta Newton, and to Javon. I believe this outcome is what Ms. Newton wanted and what Javon would have wanted. In other circumstances I would make different sentencing recommendations. In my last case, in which I prosecuted Mark Castillo for drowning his three children, I asked for and received a sentence of three consecutive life terms without parole. This was the harshest sentence the defendant could have received. It is my belief that justice requires a meticulous review of the facts, the role of each defendant, and the wishes of the surviving, innocent 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.

Julie Drake
Division Chief
Felony Family Violence Division
Office of the State's Attorney for the Baltimore City

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