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Tampa mom accused in girl's drowning deemed incompetent to stand trial

TAMPA — A Tampa mother accused of leaving her 4-year-old daughter to drown in the Hillsborough River last summer is not competent to stand trial.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Kimberly Fernandez declared Shakayla Denson incompetent Tuesday after reviewing reports from three doctors who have examined the defendant since her August arrest. The exams occurred because public defenders representing Denson cited concerns that she may be mentally ill or intellectually disabled.

The doctors' reports are confidential, so the exact nature of Denson's mental condition is unclear. The judge's finding means Denson will be sent to a state hospital to undergo competency restoration treatment before the case can continue. It does not mean she will escape prosecution.

Denson, 26, used her hands and a piece of paper to hide her face from a TV camera as she sat in a jury box with a dozen other jail inmates. Deputies escorted her from the courtroom after the brief hearing.

Police say she stole a car Aug. 2 from an auto repair business on North 40th Street and then drove to a section of the Hillsborough River near North Rome Avenue and Aileen Street. There she dragged her daughter, Je'Hyrah Daniels, to the river as the girl struggled and screamed, police said. She carried her into shoulder-deep water and let her go.

Divers recovered the girl's body near the Columbus Drive bridge and arrested her mother nearby. While sitting in a police car, Denson said that her daughter was now "pure" and with her grandmother, according to court documents. Denson was charged later that day with first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse and grand theft auto.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Witnesses: Girl struggled, screamed as mother dragged her into Hillsborough River

About six weeks earlier, child protection workers investigated a report from someone who said Denson seemed "overwhelmed and tired" in caring for her daughter, who was diagnosed with autism.

"It seems like the mother is upset that she has these disabilities and (she) is not the baby she dreamed of having," a Hillsborough County Sheriff's child-protective investigator wrote in a record of the initial report. The tipster also reported that Denson seemed distracted and inattentive.

"She just lets her run around and do what she wants," the tipster stated, according to a summary of the probe. "She doesn't seem to have the maturity to address the special needs that Je'Hyrah has."

An investigator later visited the mother and daughter at home and determined that the girl seemed happy and healthy. Denson expressed shock that someone reported her, said she was a great parent, but admitted it was hard taking care of a special needs child, according to records. Denson's sister told the investigator Denson was good about supervising her daughter.

The Sheriff's Office closed the investigation July 30, finding no evidence of maltreatment, abuse or neglect.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Child protective investigation found no concerns about 4-year-old days before her death in Hillsborough River

The girl died two days later. The state Department of Children and Families ordered a subsequent review of the case. That was completed in November, with the conclusion that the Sheriff's Office handled the case appropriately.

"Based on the information that was available in the previous investigation, a correlation cannot be made between the circumstances of the prior report and the events leading up to Je'Hyrah's death," the final report stated.

RELATED: DCF: No mistakes in case of 4-year-old girl whose mother drowned her

Contact Dan Sullivan at or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.