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Tampa baby death a factor in Bondi legal team shift

TAMPA — Six weeks after the office of state Attorney General Pam Bondi admitted that it failed to protect a baby from a fatal beating, Bondi has named a new chief for her Tampa Children's Legal Services team.

Bondi had said she might restructure the team after the May 18 death of year-old Ezekiel Mathis, who investigators say was beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend, Damarcus Kirkland-Williams, now charged with first-degree murder.

Bondi has appointed Stephanie Bergen, a prosecutor who has specialized in crimes against children for more than 18 years. Most recently, Bergen was the head of Bondi's child predator cybercrime unit, while also working as a special prosecutor for Pinellas County.

The former chief, Bill Navas, has been designated deputy chief.

A Bondi spokeswoman said Ezekiel's death was a factor in the change but that Bondi already had been looking for a place for Bergen because of her experience in crimes against children and complex prosecutions.

Before Ezekiel's death, lawyers for the Children's Legal Services team had blocked Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies from removing the child from his mother's home.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan had ordered the boyfriend, Kirkland-Williams, barred from Ezekiel's home, but the man continued to stay there. Detectives said he admitted throwing Ezekiel against a dresser and pounding on the baby's back to make him stop crying.

Both the Sheriff's Office and the attorney general's Children's Legal Services team work under contract with the state Department of Children and Families to protect Tampa children. The Sheriff's Office investigates reports of abuse, while the attorney general's lawyers handle the legal work.

Beginning May 3, child protection workers knew there was trouble in Ezekiel's home. His sister had been taken to a hospital with bruises all over her body. The mother, Swazikki Davis, blamed the bruises on the girl's clumsiness. But other family members blamed them on Davis' boyfriend.

The Children's Legal Services team decided that the 2-year-old's bruises were ample cause to remove her from her mother's care. Though the Sheriff's Office found a "high risk" to Ezekiel's safety as well, the lawyers said they lacked probable cause to remove him.

Bondi later said her lawyers were mistaken, that they had interpreted the law too narrowly and failed to put the child's safety first.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Tampa baby death a factor in Bondi legal team shift 07/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 15, 2011 12:24am]
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