Posted: Saturday, May 25, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 3:01 pm, Sat May 25, 2013.
A Richmond jury recommended seven years in prison for Ashley C. Williams — the lightest possible sentence — for the neglect and murder of her 2-year-old son.
The panel of six men and six women deliberated nearly 4½ hours Friday before finding Williams guilty of the two charges she had faced in the death of D’Sean Williams. The boy weighed only 14 pounds when he perished nearly four years ago from starvation and dehydration.
The jury found Williams, 28, guilty of child neglect and felony murder. The felony murder charge alleged that she did not mean to kill her child but that she did so by neglecting him.
After jurors found her guilty, it took them only a few minutes to decide to recommend a sentence of two years for the neglect charge and five years for the murder charge. The panel could have recommended a total of up to 50 years.
Prosecutors said the sentence sends a message to mothers who fail to meet the needs of their children.
“Parents will be held accountable if they allow their child to suffer and die like D’Sean did,” said Julie McConnell, who prosecuted the case alongside Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary E. Langer.
Defense attorney Joseph D. Morrissey, who defended Williams along with attorney J. Paul Gregorio, said he was heartened that the panel recommended the lowest possible penalty.
“But still, I’m really tremendously disappointed that it wasn’t an acquittal,” Morrissey said. “We believed in her.”
Formal sentencing was set for July 22. Under Virginia law, judges can affirm the jury’s recommendation or can suspend a portion of the sentence, but they cannot impose a higher sentence.
However, judges in Virginia rarely depart from a jury’s recommendation.
Altovise Williams, one of the defendant’s sisters, called the verdict a “disgrace” and said she will continue to fight for her sister.
“She’s hurt,” Altovise Williams said. “Shocked, like all of us.”
Photos of D’Sean’s lifeless body show a child so thin that he looked almost skeletal. He had sunken eyes, sagging skin and no body fat. The photos were a powerful tool for prosecutors, who showed them several times to jurors and witnesses.
During closing arguments Friday morning, McConnell argued that Ashley Williams caused D’Sean’s death by failing to take him to the hospital in his final five weeks, when he lost about 4 pounds and was refusing to eat.
D’Sean was found dead May 30, 2009, in the family home in Richmond.
“He suffered as his little body wasted away,” said McConnell, who also compared the death to the plight of starving children in war-torn countries such as Somalia. “He became so weak that he could barely move, and she stood by and watched it happen.”
Morrissey, in his closing remarks, described parts of the prosecution’s case as “disgraceful” and an “outrage” and said authorities had portrayed Williams as a villain. Morrissey called her a saint.
Morrissey said Williams had tried to feed her child and had done all she could, but that he wouldn’t eat. Medical experts said D’Sean had failure to thrive, a condition in which a child does not grow properly or gain enough weight.
Morrissey said the child’s pediatrician is to blame for failing to send D’Sean to a hospital when she saw how underweight he was on April 24, 2009, about five weeks before he died.
“It was disastrous to send this baby home,” he said.
Morrissey said prosecutors were claiming outrageously that Williams, a poor woman with a 10th-grade education, could have known the health risks her child faced, when trained medical professionals had “missed it.”
“How do you blame her for this?” he demanded, standing over his client and pointing at her.
McConnell, in her response to Morrissey’s arguments, underscored that the responsibility to keep a child alive rests with his mother.
“That’s what we do as parents, we fight for them,” she said. “We fight for them, and what did she do? Nothing.”