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Mother ruled competent for court in daughter's Hillsborough River drowning death

Shakayla Denson appears at a court hearing in August. Two mental health experts now say Denson understands court proceedings and can assist in her defense against charges in the drowning death of her daughter. [Times | 2018]
Published Jun. 25

TAMPA — A woman accused of leaving her 4-year-old daughter to drown last summer in the Hillsborough River is now capable of facing trial after months of mental health treatment in a state hospital, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Two mental health experts who examined Shakayla Denson since she returned to jail in April said in written reports that she understands the court proceedings and can assist in her defense.

Attorneys for the state and defense did not dispute the doctors' findings in a hearing Tuesday morning. A judge ruled that she is competent to proceed. The next court date was set for August.

Denson, 27, stood in jail scrubs and handcuffs during the brief hearing, gazing about the crowded courtroom beside a dozen other defendants.

READ MORE: Witnesses: Girl struggled, screamed as mother dragged her into the Hillsborough River

She faces charges of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse related to the Aug. 2 death of her daughter, Je'Hyrah Daniels.

That day, according to police, Denson stole a car from an auto repair shop on N 40th Street and drove to N Rome Avenue and Aileen Street, near the river. She took her daughter from the car and dragged her to the water as the girl struggled and screamed, witnesses told police. She waded into the shoulder-deep water, then let the girl go.

Police divers found the girl's body near the Columbus Drive bridge. Police arrested Denson nearby. She told officers her daughter was now "pure" and with her grandmother, according to court documents.

READ MORE: Witnesses recount behavior of mom, denied bail after 4-year-old left to die in river

Questions about Denson's mental state have dogged the case, but the exact nature of her mental condition has not been made public. In late August, her attorneys raised concerns that she might suffer from a mental illness or intellectual disability. A series of competency exams followed. She was declared incompetent to proceed in late December and spent the next three months undergoing treatment in a state hospital.

Weeks before her arrest, child protection workers investigated a report from someone who was concerned that Denson seemed "overwhelmed and tired" in caring for her daughter, who had been diagnosed with autism. An investigator visited the mother and daughter at home and found that Je'Hyrah seemed happy and healthy. Denson expressed shock that someone reported her, said she was a great parent, but admitted it was a challenge caring for a child with special needs.

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

The investigation was closed in late July with no findings of maltreatment, abuse or neglect.

After Je'Hyrah's death, the Department of Children and Families reviewed the case and found it was handled appropriately. In a report, the department said it could find no correlation between the circumstances of the prior report and the girl's death weeks later.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com. Follow @TimesDan.

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