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20 years for fatal beating of toddler

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Jessica Baker and Alonzo "A.J." Roane / September 18, 2017
A Boydton woman was sentenced this week to serve 20 years in prison for killing a three-year-old Halifax child, her step-grandson, in a brutal beating at her home in February 2016.

Jessica Baker, 40, was found guilty of one count of felony murder and one count of child abuse for the death of young Alonzo “A.J.” Roane. Two additional charges — first degree murder and child cruelty — were dismissed.

Baker received a total sentence of 50 years, with 30 years suspended from Mecklenburg County Circuit Judge Leslie Osborn. In an unexpected turn of events at Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, A.J.’s parents — Spring and Terrance Bryant, former residents of the Love Shop neighborhood — asked the court for leniency for Jessica Baker, Terrance’s mother.

They asked at one point for her immediate release from prison, according to the prosecutor in the case.

Terrance Baker, Jessica Baker’s son, was A.J.’s stepfather and married to Spring Bryant.

Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Josh Hatchell sought an active sentence of 25 years for the two charges, which was slightly higher than provided for in the sentencing guidelines, but agreed that it was in the best interest of the Commonwealth to conclude the case with a guilty plea.

Spring and Terrance Bryant, previously witnesses for the prosecution, were among those who testified on Baker’s behalf at the sentencing hearing in Boydton. Also speaking up for Baker was her mother, Margaret Perry, as well as two neighbors who described Baker as a loving mother who helped to raise a number of children.

For her part, Baker never directly admitted guilt for the death of Roane. Instead, on May 19 she entered an Alford plea, an acknowledgment that the Commonwealth had sufficient evidence for a guilty verdict, if the case had gone to trial.

Hatchell said the 20-year active sentence handed down by Osborn was at the high end of Virginia’s sentencing guidelines. It appears to reflect the community’s condemnation of Baker’s act, he said.

“This, like most cases involving children was especially hard for the Commonwealth. Ultimately, nothing I did or could do would bring the child back, but obtaining a conviction and [seeing that Baker received] a lengthy sentence were in the best interest of justice,” Hatchell said.

When she is released from prison at age 60, Baker will be on supervised probation for five years and must be on good behavior for 50 years, according to prosecutors. Osborn also ordered her to pay $1,644 in court costs and $576.72 in restitution.

Hatchell explained that the restitution is deposited into the Virginia victims fund and is used to cover funeral bills and other costs for crime victims.

He described this case as “one of the toughest I’ve had to prosecute. There really is no good outcome. I’m just doing what I can for justice.”

A.J. Roane died at VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital in South Hill, where Jessica Baker was headed on the evening of Feb. 3 when her vehicle was intercepted near Park View High School by Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Deputy Neil Clayton. According to 911 reports, A.J. was having difficulty breathing that day. Clayton followed Baker and the rescue squad to the hospital’s emergency room, where A.J. was pronounced dead.

The injuries occurred while the child was in Baker’s care, at her Boydton home on Mineral Springs Road. Following an autopsy, the medical examiner in Richmond determined that Roane died from blunt force trauma.

The child was a former student of the Head Start program in Halifax before being pulled out by his parents, who are said by relatives to have lived several different places in a short period of time.

Baker’s daughter and Roane’s aunt, Savannnah Morganne Baker, was also implicated in the death of the three-year-old. She was sentenced to two years in prison in May for her role in the abuse of Roane.

The case against Savannah Baker, for conspiracy to commit child abuse, arose from telephone conversations between mother and daughter while Savannah was being held in a local jail. In the conversations, Jessica Baker discussed her growing frustration with little A.J., who was in her care at the time of his death.

Savannah Baker denied that she played a role in A.J.’s death or ever encouraged her mother to harm the child.

Osborn, who has presided over the trials of both mother and daughter, opted for a punishment of five years in prison for Savannah Baker, with three years suspended. Upon her release from prison, Savannah Baker will be placed under two years of supervised probation and ten years of good behavior.

Additionally, she must pay restitution of $676.72 — a cost related to the burial of A.J. Roane — and other court costs.

Savannah Baker was given credit for time served and has four years to pay the restitution and court costs.

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