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Low IQ inmate Violet Hinrichs withdraws guilty plea amid questions about competency

In court Monday morning, Violet Hinrichs, who earlier had pleaded guilty to child abuse charges, withdrew her guilty plea, the first step in what could be a complete re-examination of her case. [SKIP O'ROURKE  | Times]

In court Monday morning, Violet Hinrichs, who earlier had pleaded guilty to child abuse charges, withdrew her guilty plea, the first step in what could be a complete re-examination of her case. [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times]
Published Dec. 2, 2014

TAMPA — A mentally disabled young woman from Pasco County who pleaded guilty to attempting to smother her baby withdrew her plea Monday, the first step in what Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt promised will be a "fresh look" at the case.

Violet Hinrichs' case was closed, the question of her guilt answered. All that remained was her transfer from a Hillsborough jail to a state prison for five years, the sentence she accepted Nov. 19 in a plea bargain.

But days after her sentencing, in an interview with a Tampa Bay Times reporter, Hinrichs shared legal records that cast doubt on whether she understood the deal she took.

After the Times published its report, Holt's office reopened the case, citing concern that the 20-year-old may be legally incompetent, meaning she does not currently have the ability to understand what happens in court.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe voided her plea Monday and the assistant public defender who represented her from her arrest until her sentencing has been removed from her case.

"The official position of this office is we're going to give a fresh look at the entire case, and we're going to look very closely at what's in our client's best interest," Holt said.

Tampa police arrested Hinrichs in April after a video camera in her St. Joseph's Hospital room caught her repeatedly pressing on her infant son's chest until he turned blue. Seven-month-old Daniel Hinrichs survived, and police led his then-teenage mother out of the hospital in handcuffs. She would later try to explain that she didn't mean to hurt her son.

"I was just upset and angry," she told police, "because his dad's trying to take him from me."

The state charged Hinrichs with five counts each of aggravated child abuse and second-degree attempted murder. If convicted, she faced life in prison.

By law, anyone who pleads to criminal charges must act "knowingly and intelligently." But records show Hinrichs has an IQ of 60, is mentally disabled and possibly suffers from a mood disorder. After a lifetime of special-education classes, she still reads at a first-grade level. She will tell this to anyone who asks, with a detached manner of someone accustomed to explaining herself.

"I'm kinda slow," she told the pair of Tampa police detectives who interviewed her after her arrest. "No, you're not slow," one detective replied. "You're very intelligent. I can tell."

On the day of her sentencing, Hinrichs couldn't read the plea agreement she signed, and she didn't understand that she was waiving her right to have a jury hear her case, she told the Times.

Her public defender was J. Kenneth Littman, and though records show he met with her in jail nearly a dozen times and retained a psychologist to evaluate her, there's no evidence he raised serious questions about her ability to understand the basic elements of her case, or the consequences of pleading guilty.

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Littman did not respond to requests for comment. Two days after he was contacted by a reporter, he filed a motion to withdraw Hinrichs' 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.

Assistant Public Defender Charles Traina, the agency's felony bureau chief, represented Hinrichs at Monday's hearing, at which prosecutors agreed to undo the plea deal. Littman did not attend the hearing.

Her plea bargain dissolved, Hinrichs is "back to ground zero," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, who has no connection to the case.

Today, Hinrichs is facing the same 10 charges following her arrest. Though neither Holt nor prosecutors would comment on the specifics of her case, jail records show she was recently visited by a psychologist in a likely effort to determine if she is competent to stand trial.

"It's as if there never was a plea deal," Dillinger said.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.