TAMPA — The Tampa mother who four years ago carried her 4-year-old daughter into the Hillsborough River and let go, leaving the girl to drown, admitted Tuesday to a murder charge in exchange for a 20-year prison sentence.
Shakayla Denson, 29, pleaded guilty in a brief court hearing to a reduced charge of second-degree murder in the death of her daughter, Je’Hyrah Daniels. She also admitted to charges of aggravated child abuse and grand theft of a motor vehicle.
In an agreement with state prosecutors, Denson was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with 10 years of probation to follow. She will have to undergo a mental health evaluation upon her release. With credit for the time she has already spent in custody and an early release possible once she serves 85% of her sentence, Denson could leave prison a little more than 13 years from now.
There was scarce discussion in court about what led to the resolution, which occurred a week before a scheduled trial. But the case had largely focused on Denson’s mental state when the crime occurred, with public defenders prepared to argue that she was insane.
They’d cited two mental health experts, one who diagnosed Denson with an unspecified psychotic disorder, and another who said she had “major depression with psychotic features.” A third expert hired by prosecutors examined Denson earlier this year, though his findings are not reflected in court records.
Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren released a statement:
“It is impossible to fathom how a mother could drown her own child,” it read. “Denson clearly had some serious mental issues, which multiple expert witnesses found — but we were not willing to concede that she was not guilty by reason of insanity and avoid any punishment whatsoever. This sentence imposes an appropriate punishment and achieves justice for Je’Hyrah.”
Denson, who stood handcuffed wearing red jail garb, said little in court beyond brief answers to standard questions from Judge Kimberly Fernandez to ensure she understood her plea.
She was arrested the afternoon of Aug. 2, 2018, shortly after she was seen wading into the Hillsborough River near N Rome Avenue and Aileen Street.
People who were nearby, but too far away to intervene, said the girl cried and appeared to struggle as Denson carried her into shoulder-high water. She let go, then moved back to the shoreline and screamed.
Witnesses saw the girl bob up and down as the current carried her south. Someone called 911.
A Tampa police dive team found the girl’s body near the Columbus Drive Bridge. She was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
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Minutes before Denson appeared at the riverside, witnesses reported that she’d stolen a Nissan Altima from an auto repair shop on N 40th Street. Two people said she put her daughter in the back seat. She then apparently drove about 6 miles to the West Tampa area, where she carried the girl to the river.
After officers arrested her, they heard Denson say that her daughter was now “pure” and with her grandmother, according to court records.
Charged with first-degree murder, she was later declared incompetent to proceed, and spent time in a state hospital before returning to jail.
Defense attorneys last year announced that they would argue Denson was insane when the crime occurred.
As the trial date approached, prosecutors had asked to postpone the case due to the unavailability of three witnesses — a police officer, a crime scene technician and a woman who took a picture from a high-rise apartment as Denson stood in the river. A judge declined to delay the trial. The state said the ruling was not a factor in the plea agreement.
At the same time, defense attorneys had asked that a jury be barred from hearing about statements Denson made to child protection investigators days after she was jailed. She’d already invoked her right to remain silent when the investigators came to visit her. But the plea came before a judge had a chance to hear arguments on the request.
The plea deal punctuated a crime that shocked Tampa and seemed to occur with little warning.
Child protection workers had visited Denson a few weeks before Je’Hyrah’s death. It happened after someone expressed concern that Denson, a single mother, seemed “overwhelmed and tired” caring for the girl, who’d been diagnosed with autism.
Denson expressed shock, according to child protection records, and assured investigators she was a good parent, but acknowledged it was a challenge to care for a special needs child.
The investigator found Je’Hyrah seemed happy and healthy and there were no signs of abuse or neglect.
A review after her death concluded that the investigation was handled appropriately.