No answer to “why?” in the case of teen accused in toddler’s death

Shelton Ray can say quite clearly what happened: His 13-year-old stepdaughter told him she killed her 2-year-old half-sister.

What neither he nor anyone else can say is why. And why — what went on inside the DeKalb County home Monday, and more critically, inside the 13-year-old’s mind — is crucial, legal experts say.

For now, though, there are only fragments, disjointed glimpses, seen through the stepfather’s eyes: an adolescent left to watch her four younger siblings; a visit by a boy, observed and reported to parents by a neighbor; the neighbor, at the parents’ request, telling the boy to leave.

Then, some time later, came the phone call from the 13-year-old to her parents, saying that 2-year-old Sasha was missing. The return home, where the teen helped them search for Sasha around their Waldrop Trail townhouse. The next scene is Sasha’s bloody body, discovered by him behind the house.

His first thoughts — that perhaps dogs had savaged the toddler. The frantic drive to the hospital, where Sasha was pronounced dead — not at the hands of a dog pack but an assailant who, according to what Ray says authorities told him, had stabbed her seven times.

Next, police combing the house, asking questions, ultimately taking the 13-year-old away for further questioning. Her late-night call to her stepfather, confessing, he says, that she was Sasha’s killer.

That 13-year-old made her first court appearance Tuesday, being formally told that she will be charged with murder as an adult. “We love you,” Ray called across the courtroom to the teen he has raised for the past decade. Her mother, Haneefa Ray, wept.

(In accordance with its longstanding policy, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will not name the juvenile even though she has been publicly identified and charged as an adult.)

On Tuesday evening, the Rays were eager to talk about little Sasha, whom the family affectionately called “Grandma” because she acted old beyond her years. But, on their lawyer’s advice, they had no picture to paint of the teen girl who sits in a cell, labeled as guilty by her stepfather’s own accounts. And he could offer nothing more to fill in the why, to connect the ghastly, incomprehensible dots.

That will be the task of DeKalb prosecutors. And, say others in their profession, it won’t be an easy one.

“This will be a real challenge to try, because I’m sure it will depend heavily on the psychiatric condition of the 13-year-old,” said Al Dixon, a College Park criminal defense attorney. “Just forming the mental intent to kill somebody at that age is a tough one (to prove).”

Although such cases generate intense media coverage, it is extremely rare for children to kill other children. More common, experts noted, are youths committing such “deadly sins” such as rape or armed robberies.

Last year, there were 71 homicides in the United States in which both the victim and the offender were under the age of 18, according to FBI statistics. Looking at the past five years, the average is slightly higher: 105 cases per year.

How juries respond in such cases, depends on the crime, legal experts said.

Dixon said juries will be torn between impulses to sympathize with the defendant and the victim.

“You are talking about a child who might have stabbed their 2-year-old sister,” said Dixon, a former Fulton County prosecutor. “What sympathy they have (for the defendant) might be outweighed by the nature of the charge.”

Emory law professor and juvenile-justice expert Martha Grace Duncan said juries can be especially harsh toward child offenders accused of heinous crimes.

“They might think: ‘Children are so innocent, so there must be something really wrong with this child if they did that,” she said.

On the other hand, juries often are willing to excuse a child defendant who claims mental illness more readily than an adult, Marietta-based criminal defense attorney Jimmy Berry said.

And therein lies the key to the teen’s probable defense. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys must evaluate the girl’s mental health and her intellectual and emotional development, he said.

“The first thing you want to find out is about the 13-year-old, what her mental state is, and what was going on in her mind that would cause her to want to do this,” he said. “Was the 2-year-old pitching a fit? Giving her a hard time and she was babysitting and she lost it? Was this a planned thing? There are so many things to look at.”

And so many things still unknown. The state’s Division of Family and Children Services will not be able to add to the picture; agency officials said it had no history with the family.

For now, the family is focusing on memories of young Sasha, who they said was already learning to read and loved to sing songs by Beyonce.

“She was that one little bright star,” her father said.

Funeral services for Sasha will be held Tuesday at Raleigh Rucker Funeral Home in Decatur.

An account has been set up in Sasha’s name to help the family with funeral costs. Donations can be made at any Wells Fargo Bank to the Sasha Lamaya Ray Memorial Fund.