Child’s death brings 20-year sentence

Shaquille Rawlins (left) was sentenced to 20 years in prison in the death of his daughter, Ja’Myra Rawlins.

The grim procession of cases involving battered babies continued at the Jefferson County Courthouse this week.

Ja’Myra Nicole Rawlins was 18 months old on Sept. 12, 2013 when EMS personnel responding to a 911 call found her unresponsive at her North End home. The baby’s mother, Jazmine Thomas, told police she had left Ja’Myra with her father while she ran errands only to return and find her unconscious. The baby’s father, Shaquille Leron Rawlins, 20, had fled the house on foot before police and the ambulance arrived.

When police caught up with Rawlins, he denied any knowledge of how the injuries occurred but later claimed that while babysitting the child, he had tossed her into the air and failed to catch her, causing her to land on her head. He was arrested for causing injury to a child and jailed jailed on a $25,000 bond.

Ja’Myra was transported to Christus St. Elizabeth emergency room in critical condition, then immediately transferred to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, where she died two days later. Murder charges were filed against Rawlins after a preliminary autopsy conducted by the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office showed the young girl suffered a skull fracture with bleeding and bruising to both sides of her brain. The pathologist said he did not think the actions described by the suspect could have caused the injuries he observed, according to the arrest affidavit.

The murder charge was eventually reduced to reckless injury to a child causing serious bodily injury, no doubt because prosecutors had reason to fear the actions a jury might take. These cases can be difficult to prove; the young victims cannot testify, even when they survive. 

Jurors recently acquitted a father on charges he intentionally or recklessly burned his baby daughter in August 2012. Laphonson Batiste’s mother, grandmother and sister believed him guilty, but a jury in Judge Raquel West’s court disagreed.

Doctors who treated Batiste’s daughter, Kimberly, testified her father intentionally dipped her in scalding water. She suffered second and third degree burns to 43 percent of her body and was treated in the ICU at Shriners Burn Hospital in Galveston. Because the child was burned on her back and bottom but not her legs, doctors believed Laphonson Batiste dipped his daughter in hot water. The jury didn’t buy it.

In the Rawlin’s case, prosecutor Ashley Molfino – perhaps mindful of what happened in the Batiste case – reluctantly agreed to a reduced charge, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. She was prepared to press for the maximum sentence for the life of Ja’Myra Rawlins.

That set the stage for a hearing this week in Criminal District Court for Judge John Stevens to accept Rawlins’ guilty plea to the reduced charge and pronounce sentence. Rawlins’ mother stood dry-eyed before the bench to ask for leniency for son.

“What about your grandchild?” asked an incredulous Judge Stevens.

“I lock myself in the bathroom or in my car to grieve privately for her,” she replied, and again asked the court to give him probation. Rawlins’ attorney, Sean Villery-Samuel, noted that because he had never been convicted of a felony, Rawlins was indeed eligible for probation. Stevens kept referring to the autopsy report describing the baby’s injuries, including a bruised sternum, multiple scratches, bruises and bite marks, which the defendant admitted inflicting.

But he had an explanation. “That’s just nibbling, know what I’m saying,” he offered.

Judge Stevens attached special significance to Rawlins leaving the scene. “The guilty flee where no man purseth, the righteous are as bold as a lion,” he said, citing Proverbs 28:1 and noting Rawlins did nothing to aid his wounded child.

Prosecutor Molfino, a catch in her voice and tears in her eyes – perhaps mindful of her own young child – reminded the court how this baby had suffered, and again asked for the maximum sentence of 20 years.

This list of the injuries inflicted on Ja’Myra finally proved too much for another defendant awaiting his hearing in orange jump suit, handcuffs and leg chains who broke courtroom decorum by loudly shouting, “Get me out of here; I can’t stand hearing this.”

Judge Stevens immediately ordered him to be silent. “Put your fingers in your ears if you have to,” said the judge. “You’ve got problems of your own,” a reference to the felony DWI charge that defendant was facing, reportedly with children in his car at the time he was arrested.

Extra deputies ringed the courtroom packed with Rawlins’ friends and family, who sat in silence as the judge made Rawlins acknowledge the elements of his guilty plea. Villery-Samuel asked for probation one final time before Judge Stevens imposed a sentence of 20 years in the institutional division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. There were groans from the audience and angry talk as they filed out. Loud weeping could be heard out in the hall from people who were somehow convinced he would get probation, as if the two years he had been jailed since Ja’Myra’s death had been sufficient atonement. There were reportedly postings on a Facebook page for a “Welcome Home, Shaq” party, but two years is not near enough in Judge Stevens court for the death of a child. The loud crying and angry shouts continued into the parking lot as deputies struggled to maintain order as rival groups of family members screamed at each other. The Beaumont Police responded to the scene and finally broke up the disturbance without violence. 

Sometime later, shouts and screams could be heard from the holding cells behind the courtroom as Rawlins’ sentence got off to a rough start when he was attacked by the inmate who recoiled at his crimes.

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