Jury selection scheduled in alleged Md. cult trial
A mother and daughter accused of starving a 1-year-old boy to death while part of a religious cult will be tried alongside another cult member who had asked for a separate trial because the women are representing themselves, a Baltimore judge ruled Tuesday.
Prosecutors also said Tuesday that they would drop charges against a fourth cult member.
Jury selection will begin Wednesday for the trial of Queen Antoinette, 41; her daughter, Trevia Williams, 22; and Marcus A. Cobbs, 23. Opening statements and testimony are scheduled for Monday, Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory said.
Antoinette, Williams, and Cobbs were members of a small, now-defunct cult called 1 Mind Ministries. They are accused of denying food and water to toddler Javon Thompson because he wouldn't say “Amen” after meals. After the boy died, the cult members prayed for his resurrection, according to court documents.
Ultimately, they stuffed Javon's body into a suitcase and drove with it to Philadelphia, where they hid it in a shed for more than a year before police found it, the documents show.
Javon's mother, Ria Ramkissoon, was also part of the cult. She pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death and will testify against the other cult members. Ramkissoon's plea deal contained an extraordinary provision that she insisted on calling for the plea to be withdrawn if Javon is resurrected.
Antoinette and Williams are representing themselves at trial. Doory denied a motion Tuesday from Cobbs' public defender, Maureen Rowland, to have him tried separately. Rowland argued that Cobbs would be prejudiced by having to stand trial alongside two co-defendants acting as their own lawyers.
“It's ridiculous to force me to go to trial under these circumstances,” she said.
But prosecutors argued that the evidence against the three cult members was largely the same, and Doory said it was best to try them together.
“I know that a joint trial will be very difficult,” Doory said. “I would hope to avoid a mistrial. ... It's possible for it to be pulled off.” Antoinette and Williams also said they did not wish for Cobbs to be tried separately. Rowland “evidently assumes we are not smart enough to represent ourselves,” Antoinette said.
Meanwhile, prosecutors said they plan to drop all charges against cult member Steven L. Bynum, a move that angered Javon's grandmother.
Assistant State's Attorney Julie Drake said Bynum and his lawyer met with prosecutors and clarified his limited role in the cult. He will be called to testify at the trial, but the charges were not dropped in exchange for his cooperation.
“We did not have enough evidence to proceed against him,” Drake said.
Bynum's attorney, Catherine Flynn, said the decision to drop the charges was “the right thing to do.”
“He had no culpability. But he is in fact a witness to some of the relevant incidents that led to the whole thing,” Flynn said.
Javon's grandmother, Seeta Khadan-Newton, said Bynum had gotten off easy.
“Where is the justice? I don't get it,” Khadan-Newton told The Associated Press. “My daughter is being punished, but he is not, when he had more power in this situation than she did.” Ramkissoon remains jailed after an alternative sentencing arrangement fell through, but she is expected to be released after she testifies. Her attorney, Steven D. Silverman, said her testimony will be “very compelling.” Ramkissoon and the four other cult members were initially charged with first-degree murder. But prosecutors said Tuesday they will pursue first-degree murder charges only against Antoinette. They will seek second-degree murder convictions for Williams and Cobbs.
Doory at one point referred to Antoinette as Williams' mother, and prosecutors confirmed after the hearing that Williams is Antoinette's biological daughter, a fact that authorities had not revealed previously.
Antoinette sought to have the case dismissed because she had not received a speedy trial, but Doory denied those motions. She also argued that the case should be tried in Pennsylvania, where Javon's body was found. Doory said he would rule later on that motion.
While Antoinette and Williams have said little in their court appearances to this point, Antoinette was highly vocal Tuesday. She said an attorney has been helping her outside court and complained about the way she and Williams have been treated in the city jail, blaming it on the notoriety of their case.
“We've been denied TV, recreation, basic things for 18 months,” Antoinette said. “We have to deal with abuse from inmates. ... Our case is discussed amongst those who work in the jail.”
-- Associated Press
Washington Post Editors
February 17, 2010; 8:24 AM ET
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