Last week a local 2 month old child died after enduring burns inflicted at the hands of his mother. 18 year old Chekayla Ariel Dampier of Port Richey was arrested on April 17th and charged with aggravated child abuse causing great bodily harm after holding her young son under scalding hot water in an effort to halt his crying, according to police officials. Aside from the nauseating facts of this case, there is no doubt Ms. Dampier will now face some form of a homicide charge due to the death of her child.
It is likely Ms. Dampier will face a 1st Degree Murder charge punishable by death under Florida Statute 782.04(1)(a)(2) due to the death of her child. Allegedly, Ms. Dampier was engaged in committing aggravated child abuse upon her son which will likely be shown as the cause of the child’s death. Florida, amongst other states, allow for a first degree murder charge if an individual dies resulting from the commission of a felony by another. An example would be a bank robbery where the gun accidentally discharges, hits the clerk, and the clerk dies. There would arguably be no premeditation for murder, however because robbery is a felony, the State could charge a first degree murder charge due to the death occurring as a direct result of a felony being committed. If the facts as alleged are true, I believe Bernie McCabe’s office can make a case against Ms. Dampier for first degree felony murder.
In the unlikely event the State Attorney’s Office elects to go the non-capital route and charge Ms. Dampier with Second Degree Murder per Florida Statute 782.04(2), the State will have the task of showing that Ms. Dampier unlawfully killed her child, when committing any act imminently dangerous to the child while evincing (show or demonstrate clearly) a depraved mind regardless of human life, but without any premeditated mental state. Stated otherwise, the State would have to show that Ms. Dampier was committing an extremely dangerous act to her child and was oblivious to its effects and without concern for her act’s effects upon her child. A conviction for Second Degree Murder is a life felony punishable by just that.
Lastly, the State could opt to charge Ms. Dampier with Aggravated Manslaughter of a Child, a first degree felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison. In order to get a conviction under this charge, the State must show Ms. Dampier killed her minor son without lawful justification. Again, the State will very likely opt to charge Ms. Dampier with capital felony murder and will use Second Degree Murder and Aggravated Manslaughter of a Child as lesser included crimes should this case go to trial. In using this strategy, the State enjoys the luxury of two lesser charge “safety nets.” Should the jury not find felony murder to be the most appropriate charge, the jury may still find Ms. Dampier guilty on either Second Degree Murder or Manslaughter, but not both. This is quite common in homicide cases and likely is the theory behind Angela Corey charging George Zimmerman with Second Degree Murder rather than Manslaughter.
Should the State fail, in either case to prove a murder charge, there is a chance for them not to walk away empty handed and gain a Manslaughter conviction. As with any capital murder case, there are a few legal strategies a criminal defense attorney can use to either attempt to earn an acquittal for the defendant or attempt to avoid a capital murder conviction, thereby avoiding a death penalty.
Any good defense attorney will analyze early on his/her client’s chances of a full acquittal. If this is the case, facts will be disputed with the hope of a complete acquittal. Think Casey Anthony. In cases like this one, it appears the facts are so overwhelming against Ms. Dampier, that she needs to employ another strategy. It was noted that friends and family were of the opinion that Ms. Dampier has psychological issues. If this is the case, as her attorney I would investigate whether she is mentally competent to stand trial. If she is shown not to be competent, her trial would be delayed until which point she is deemed competent to stand trial. Assuming for argument’s sake that she is competent, there is the possibility of asserting the affirmative defense of insanity at trial. In using an insanity defense, the Defendant must show by a preponderance of evidence (just a tiny tip of the scale in Defendant’s favor) that at the time of the crime they had a mental infirmity, disease, or defect and because of that condition the person did not know what they were doing or didn’t know the consequences of what they were doing or although they knew what they were doing and its consequences, they did not know it was wrong. The determination of whether someone is not guilty by reason of insanity is for the jury to decide.Lastly, if the facts are overwhelming and insanity is a longshot, there is the often employed strategy of going to trial and arguing that First Degree Murder is inappropriate and that the Defendant should be convicted, if at all, of a Second Degree Murder charge or Manslaughter. This strategy is generally a last ditch effort to save a Defendant from the death penalty.
Ultimately, I believe the easiest charge for the State to prove will a First Degree Felony Murder charge. In essence they must only show an aggravated child abuse has occurred. They allegedly have an admission as to that charge. Step two would be to show the aggravated child abuse was the cause of death. Again, this shouldn’t be too difficult considering the heinous nature of the abuse and the medical testimony available. Potentially the largest obstacle the State will have to overcome is the competency of the Defendant and an insanity defense. Often in cases like this where the act is so offensive that the common man and woman cringe, insanity is a very plausible explanation for the act as many can’t imagine what would cause someone to act in a manner of the like. Regardless, whatever the outcome of this may be, hopefully justice will be served. What are your thoughts?