DADE CITY - Avoiding a possible death sentence, Mary Lee Collins pleaded guilty Monday to charges that she beat her 22-month-old son Joshua to death in 1988, marking the end of a case that helped reform the way the state runs its child protection system. After seeing photographs of Joshua's emaciated, bruised and battered body, Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper told Collins she thought a jury would have likely recommended she die for the crime.
Instead, as part of a plea agreement, Tepper sentenced Collins to life in prison with a mandatory sentence of 25 years.
Collins, 22, cried as she listened to Tepper tell her that she will be in prison at least through her child-bearing years - saving other children from the torture she inflicted on Joshua.
Later, in an interview at the Pasco jail, Collins maintained that she is not the baby-killer she is made out to be.
"I don't want people thinking of me as a monster that killed her son," she said. "That's not who I am. I love my kids. ... I don't want anybody to think I'm saying, 'Oh I never hurt my kid. I was Mother Teresa.' I'm not."
She added, "I did not beat him and abuse him and cause his death.
Someone else took him away from me."
Collins said she had intended to go to trial, but changed her mind after an emotional meeting with her mother and after reviewing the evidence against her.
Because Collins was on probation for abusing Joshua at the time she was arrested for killing him, his death put a lot of heat on the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services for sending Joshua back to his mother less than a month before he died.
Joshua died Nov. 25, 1988, after his mother gave birth to another boy at Tampa General Hospital. When Collins' boyfriend went to pick her up from the hospital, Joshua was left in the car. When they came back to the car, Joshua would not wake up and was taken into the emergency room. He was pronounced dead about 40 minutes later.
Collins was arrested after telling authorities that she had kicked him in the head two days earlier. Her boyfriend, Raymond Leet, has been charged with third-degree murder in the case because authorities said he knew about the abuse and did nothing to stop it.
Joshua's case led to drastic changes in how HRS handles child abuse cases, particularly in Pasco.
"The HRS philosophy has changed as a result of this case," said Chief Assistant State Attorney Allen Allweiss. "There's more training.
Caseworkers know better what to look for now. A lot of good things have happened because of this. So maybe Joshua Collins did leave something good behind."
Joshua's short life was fraught with violence.
Five times HRS received calls regarding Collins' abuse of Joshua.
Some of those calls were unfounded, but one led to charges that she slammed his head into a tombstone several months before she was arrested for killing him.
Police described her as a woman who couldn't handle having two children and one on the way. In interviews and depositions, HRS caseworkers described her as a good con - an actress who made them think things were getting better between her and Joshua.
Collins gave birth to Joshua while she was in prison. At the time, she said she didn't want him and gave him to Raymond and Joanna Hay of Zephyrhills.
The Hays say that the months Joshua was with them was the only time he wasn't a victim of abuse. When Collins took him back, the Hays noticed bruises on him.
Unlike HRS caseworkers, they didn't believe Collins' stories that Joshua was clumsy and hurt himself or that his older brother bullied him.
They say they warned HRS that if his mother kept him, Joshua would not live.
"I wish someone had listened to us," Raymond Hay said Monday. "HRS got off easy - they're just as damn guilty of this as Mary Lee is. I want to feel sorry for Mary Lee, but when I think of that little boy who was too afraid to even play in his own yard, I can't feel sorry for her."
Collins' defense team was afraid a jury wouldn't feel sorry for her either.
In fact, Assistant Public Defender John Carballo said Friday that the state could prove enough aggravating factors for Collins to receive the death penalty.
A child's murder is heinous and cruel and Collins had been violent toward Joshua in the past, he said. That is enough to turn a life sentence into a death sentence, he said.
"If you see the pictures, you see the problems we had," said Carballo, who worked on the Collins' case for 15 months. "No matter what happened, she never intended to cause the child's death."
The pictures show a boy whose ribs protrude. There are bruises along his spine, his head is swollen, his face is black and blue. There is a bite mark on his shoulder and collar of bruises-on-top-of-bruises around his neck.
There was also new evidence that Joshua had suffered a skull fracture earlier in his life - perhaps during the tombstone incident, although there is no way of telling, Carballo said.
Prosecutor Allweiss said the state decided to accept the deal because a life sentence would keep Collins from abusing more children.
"She'll sit in jail for life or 25 years. She certainly won't have any more children to kill," Allweiss said. "She obviously didn't like this child - she'd been beating on him since he was born. She had targeted this child for death."
More than 100 people testified during depositions, many discussing HRS and Collins' prior treatment of Joshua. The defense intended to use the mistakes made by HRS to bolster its case.
"Everybody has to share a little blame," Carballo said.
HRS took much of the blame when the department's inspector general reported that Joshua could have been saved if HRS workers had done their jobs adequately. The inspector general attributed the boy's death to a "domino effect" of inadequate services.
Caseworkers were demoted and transferred, a child abuse task force was formed and training improved.
"So many other children will be better protected now," Joanna Hay said. "But I grieve for that bright shining face I'll never see again, and it's hard to keep it in perspective.
"She (Mary) was given a choice of life or death because it easily could have been death," Mrs. Hay said. "Joshua didn't have that choice. He had to take whatever she dealt him. She's still got hope.
Joshua will never be able to overturn the decision she made."