Pasco mother's guilty plea to child abuse reopened amid competency questions

It's uncertain that a mentally challenged woman understood the consequences.
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TAMPA — On Nov. 19, Violet Hinrichs shuffled into a Tampa courtroom, raised her right hand and pleaded guilty to charges that would put her in prison for five years.

She was a week shy of her 20th birthday and as she stood before the judge, her oversized jail-issued jacket hung from her 5-foot-2 frame. Did she understand the consequences of pleading guilty? the judge asked. "Yes sir," she said softly, giving the answer she is accustomed to giving. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

In April, authorities say, Hinrichs repeatedly tried to smother her 7-month-old son while he was hospitalized. She was caught on camera pressing on his chest until his skin turned blue.

Six months later, she did what most defendants do: She took a plea deal. But crucial information that neither her attorney nor the prosecutor revealed during that hearing could change the outcome of Hinrichs' case. It's unclear whether she had the mental capacity to understand her guilty plea, and Hinrichs now says she did not know what she was doing.

Records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show that a psychologist who evaluated Hinrichs several months after her arrest reported her intellectual disability and IQ of 60, but her public defender never asked for more testing to determine competency.

After a lifetime of special education classes — she was classified as intellectually disabled and speech impaired at age 7 — she has the reading and math skills of a first- or second-grade student.

Ask Hinrichs to read a paragraph aloud and she can sound out basic words, but she doesn't understand most legal terminology. She can't read the plea agreement she signed.

Hinrichs also met the criteria for a rare condition in which people feign illness to get themselves or their children hospitalized.

"There is no suggestion that this defendant is malingering," the psychologist wrote.

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A typical day in Tampa's courthouse might include a dozen defendants like Hinrichs who have intellectual disabilities. Many of them are evaluated to determine if they are competent for trial. To meet that standard, they must have a clear understanding of the charges against them, be able to participate in their own defense, and make decisions about plea agreements.

Though Kasper's report was given to Hinrichs' attorney, Assistant Public Defender J. Kenneth Littman, it is unclear what he did with it. In cases where mental health is an issue, attorneys typically ask a judge to appoint a psychologist to evaluate the defendant for competency. But records show Littman did not make that request. And though the state was aware of Hinrichs' history, neither prosecutor Rita Peters nor Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe raised questions about her competency. So there was no hearing, as there often is, at which mental health experts could have weighed in on Hinrichs' status.

Littman did not respond to requests for comment. But two days after he was contacted by the Times, he filed a motion to withdraw Hinrichs' guilty plea.

"Since November 19, 2014, facts have come to light which raise a serious question as to whether Ms. Hinrichs was competent to enter her guilty plea," he wrote. A judge is expected to hear his request on Monday.

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"I was just not thinking at the time," Hinrichs says now. She was confused, as she often finds herself to be these days.

In interviews with a Times reporter, Hinrichs, of Port Richey, said she thought her case was headed for trial. Charged with five counts each of aggravated child abuse and second-degree attempted murder, she said Littman warned that she could face life in prison if a jury convicted her. He pushed her to take a plea deal, telling her the state had substantial evidence against her, she said.

That last claim does not appear to have been true. In court on Nov. 19, Peters agreed to drop the attempted murder charges and reduce the remaining five to child abuse. "Based on everything we have, including her post-Miranda statement, we cannot show that Ms. Hinrichs acted with intent to harm her child," Peters said.

Littman gave Hinrichs a plea form and read it to her, but he talked so fast, she said, that she couldn't keep up. She tried to read the form, but now says the words made little sense. It must be a document to tell the judge she wanted a trial, she reasoned. She signed it.

"He gave me the pen and I was just looking at him weird," she said. "I told him I wanted to think about taking a trial or going to prison for five years and he didn't give me the time to think about it."

Before she knew it, she was facing the judge. She remembers the judge asking if that was her signature on the form. Hinrichs answered yes to every question, as she admits she often does. It was her first time speaking in front of a large group.

"I just kept saying yes and I kept saying okay and everything," she said. "I really didn't know what was going on."

It was not until the judge pronounced Hinrichs' sentence that she realized what she had done. Then the tears came.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354. Follow her @annamphillips.

   
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