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Second degree murder plea entered in 3-year-old’s death / May 22, 2017
The accused killer of a 3-year-old Halifax boy entered an Alford plea on Friday to a second degree murder charge, avoiding the possibility that she could receive life in prison for the death of her step-grandchild, Alonzo “A.J.” Roane.

Jessica Eve Baker, 40, of Boydton appeared in Mecklenburg County Circuit Court to enter the Alford plea in the February 2016 death of little A.J., whose parents lived for a time in the Love Shop Road neighborhood of Halifax County. An Alford plea is not a direct admission of guilt, but rather an acknowledgment that the prosecution has sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction.

Baker never acknowledged the role she played in the brutal death of the toddler, and in prior proceedings she has consistently claimed A.J. fell on steps outside her home, dealing a blow to the head that caused his brain to hemorrhage and resulted in his death.

The prosecution initially had sought a first degree murder conviction against Baker, but with the agreement of the Mecklenburg Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, presiding Circuit Judge Les Osborn dismissed that charge in favor of the Alford plea of second degree murder. Baker also entered an Alford plea of felony child abuse.

The pleas were entered without condition, other than an agreement between the prosecution and defense lawyers as to a recommendation for how long Baker’s ultimate sentence should be. Mecklenburg County Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Josh Hatchell said he would ask for a prison term not to exceed 25 years, but Osborn pointedly explained to Baker that he has the discretion to accept or reject the Commonwealth’s request, and that the final sentencing decision will be up to him.

The Boydton woman faces the possibility of spending decades behind bars. Second degree murder carries a maximum prison sentence of 40 years. The child abuse charge is punishable by up to an additional ten years in prison.

Other than answering Osborn’s questions about whether she understood what she was doing by entering an Alford plea, Baker, with tears streaming down her face, had little to say. More than once, she glanced at her attorney, Robert Lichtenstein, before responding to the judge.

Looking on in the courtroom was Baker’s mother, who also was crying.

Hatchell, who handled the prosecution, told the court that Baker admitted in taped phone conversations with her daughter, Savannah Morganne Baker, that she was “angry and agitated with A.J.” and she also admitted to “striking and beating the child,” who she identified by name and age in the recordings. Savannah Morganne Baker, who has since been convicted of conspiracy to commit felony child abuse, was in prison at the time that she fielded the phone call from her mother.

A.J. Roane was the son of Spring and Terrance Bryant of Halifax. Jessica Baker is Terrance Bryant’s mother. Prior to his death, the boy was in the care of Baker at her Boydton home on Mineral Springs Road.

Hatchell, the deputy prosecutor, entered into evidence the recordings of the conversations between Jessica and Savannah Baker and a synopsis of the contents at Friday’s plea agreement hearing. He also submitted a series of photographs, taken at the hospital where A.J. was brought for treatment, and another set before and after an autopsy was performed on the three-year-old.

At the request of Baker’s attorney, and because of their graphic nature, Osborn sealed the photos.

In the conversation between mother and daughter, Jessica Baker told Savannah Baker that a day after the beating, A.J. was “trembling, running a high fever, and his hands and feet were drawing up.” Hatchell explained Baker made no attempt to seek medical attention for the child until a neighbor, upon seeing that the boy was not moving, told her to call 911 and get him to a hospital.

Other evidence that Hatchell said he would have submitted at trial, included copies of the 911 phone call Baker made on Feb. 3, 2016 while en route to VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital in South Hill. Prosecution also collected other evidence, including reports and testimony of law enforcement officers who investigated the case. Among those items are photos of the condition of Baker’s home, inside and out, and signs that the child may have been restrained in the bed.

A further piece of evidence was a report by the state medical examiner, Dr. Sara Onanessian, who after examining the corpse determined the child died from a slow brain bleed from blunt force trauma to the head. While the injury may cause the child to fall or be unsteady on his feet, the injury he suffered was not caused by him falling and hitting his head on steps, as alleged by Baker.

Hatchell said the medical examiner’s office also discounted an additional claim by Jessica Baker, that Roane’s eardrum was injured by having a “Q-Tip” stuck in his ear. “His eardrum was intact, according to the medical examiner’s report,” Hatchell told Osborn.

A.J. Roane died of blunt force trauma on Feb. 3, 2016, after suffering at least a day without medical attention for his internal injuries. His lifeless body was transported to the hospital by EMS after Baker was stopped by law enforcement on the way to South Hill from her Boydton home.

Arguing for the defense, Lichtenstein downplayed the phone conversation between Baker and her daughter, saying it was proof of her “frustration,” not anger or agitation. He further noted that Baker was the caller who phoned 911, and took exception of Hatchell’s use of the word “story” to describe Baker’s explanation of events that led up to A.J.’s death.

Hearing the evidence, none of which was contradicted by Baker or her attorney, Osborn told Baker, “the overwhelming evidence outweighs your claim of innocence. I find you guilty of murder in the second degree and child abuse resulting in substantial injury.”

Osborn ordered a pre-sentence report on Baker and set her sentencing hearing for Aug. 16 at 11 a.m.

Baker has been in jail at Meherrin River Regional Jail in Lawrenceville since being picked up by authorities at the home of her father in Dickenson County, in southwest Virginia on Feb. 15, 2016. She was returned to jail following the hearing to await sentencing.

Both Lichtenstein and Hatchell said they plan to call a number of witnesses to testify at her sentencing hearing.

The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation on February 3, immediately following A.J.’s death, to probe the unusual circumstances surrounding his demise.

According to information released by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office at the time, Deputy Neil Clayton was dispatched around 10:53 p.m. on Feb. 3 after the Mecklenburg 911 Center received a call about a female traveling on Route 1 toward VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital with a child in the car who was having difficulty breathing.

Clayton met the rescue squad at the Community Memorial Hospital emergency room where the child was pronounced dead. Clayton then turned the case over to Mark Claiborne with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office. Authorities ordered the body transported to the Medical Examiner’s office in Richmond for an autopsy. The findings from that autopsy determined that the manner of death was a homicide.

In February, Savannah Baker pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit child abuse based on the evidence of her jailhouse conversations with her mother. Her sentencing hearing is set for May 25 at 9:30 a.m. in Mecklenburg County Circuit Court. She is being held at Pamunkey Regional Jail in Hanover County, without bond.

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