Manassas (Virginia): Joaquin Rams is either a father unjustly accused in the tragic, unexplained death of his 1-year-old son, or he is the most cold-blooded of murderers who snuffed the life from his boy to collect half a million dollars in life insurance.
The four-week capital murder trial has left little room for anything in between in the case against Rams, who is charged in the October 2012 death of Prince McLeod Rams.
Lawyers concluded their closing arguments Thursday, putting the case in the hands of Judge Randy Bellows. Rams waived his right to a jury in exchange for prosecutors' agreement not to seek the death penalty. If convicted, Rams will automatically be sentenced to life in prison.
Prosecutors say Rams either suffocated or drowned Prince to collect on three separate life insurance policies he held on the child. Defense lawyers argue Prince died of natural causes after suffering a fever-induced seizure.
The case has taken a series of twists and turns in the four years since Rams was arrested. Chief among them: Virginia's chief medical examiner, for the first time in his career, overruled the finding that Prince drowned, and instead changed the cause of death to "undetermined."
In addition, prosecutors were barred from presenting evidence about the suspicious deaths of two other people close to Rams: ex-girlfriend Shawn Mason, who was fatally shot in 2003; and his mother, Alma Collins, who died in 2008. Collins' death was ruled a suicide, but prosecutors have since said they believe Rams was responsible. He collected $162,000 in life insurance when she died, and unsuccessfully tried to collect on an insurance policy after Mason's death, prosecutors say.
Prosecutor James Willett acknowledged Thursday that the case against Rams is a circumstantial one, but said it is powerful nonetheless. While he said it is debatable whether Prince died of suffocation or drowning, "the evidence is clear that Prince did not die of natural causes."
The death occurred on Rams' fourth unsupervised visit with his son. A Maryland judge granted visitation over the objections of Prince's mother, Hera McLeod, who feared for her son's safety.
Medical experts for the prosecution testified that fever-induced, or febrile, seizures are relatively common in children Prince's age and are not known to be fatal. They questioned how Prince could have been suffering a fever and then had his temperature measured at 91 degrees just a few hours later in the hospital.
Defense experts countered that febrile seizures could have been connected to a more serious, potentially fatal condition. They said it fell on prosecutors to provide clear evidence of how Prince died and they failed to do so.
Defense lawyer Tracey Lenox said there was "a tide of certainty about Mr. Rams' guilt by prosecutors and law enforcement" that caused them to discount Rams' account that he saw Prince having a seizure in his crib and that he tried to cool him down by splashing him with cold water from a bathtub. Two friends who allowed Rams to live in their home also testified in support of Rams' version of events.
As for the insurance, Willett said there is no innocent explanation for Rams' decision to take out three separate life insurance accounts on Prince. While they were barred from talking about Alma Collins' death, they did point out that he had been living off the life insurance settlement, and that the money from that payout was running out around the time of Prince's death.
Defense lawyers cited testimony from an insurance salesman who said he was the one who persuaded Rams to take out the policy as a way to save for college. Bellows said he will issue his verdict April 13.