Prosecutors have dropped second-degree murder charges against a jailed Virginia couple who allegedly beat the woman’s disabled 11-year-old daughter to death in May.
The Virginian-Pilot reported that murder charges were changed to felony homicide charges on Thursday. Commonwealth’s attorney spokesperson Amanda Howie told the newspaper that both charges carry a maximum sentence of 40 years but declined to divulge whether prosecutors believe Heaven Watkins’ death was an accident.
WTKR noted that prosecutors are being pressed about whether they believe Watkins’ death was unintentional due to the language used in the code for felony homicide, which reads:
“The killing of one accidentally, contrary to the intention of the parties, while in the prosecution of some felonious act.”
As CrimeOnline previously reported, Latoya Smith, 33, and Demont Harris, 43, were arrested after Watkins was found dead in her home on May 18. The medical examiner found that the tween died from blunt force trauma to the head and torso and had sustained 12 to 13 old fractures in addition to two to three new ones.
Officials said Harris had beat Watkins so badly that her intestine ruptured during the unthinkable attack, the Pilot reported.
A 2015 report penned by child protection worker Windy Ross stated that school officials were concerned by Watkins’ “highly sexualized behavior and statements.” Watkins told school staff that she got a fat lip from her father hitting her, Ross wrote.
Ross also alleged the father sold drugs out the home while his kids were with him and kept guns in places that they could reach, according to the newspaper.
Prosecutors had accused Harris of forcing Watkins right hand under hot water until she was burned. She ended up being hospitalized for six days and required skin grafts due to the February incident. In the days leading up to her death, the couple made Watkins stand against a wall for hours on end and fed her only bread and water, prosecutors said.
Tracey Vaughan, Harris’ sister, told WTKR that she reported the hot water incident to police back in February and that she was the one who took Watkins to the ER. Despite this, Smith still had custody of Watkins—a failing which WVEC has continued to investigate in the months following her death.
“I’m sad that my niece is no longer with us,” Vaughan told WVEC at court Friday. “She will be missed a lot.”
Watkins reportedly had cerebral palsy and autism. The child protection worker wrote that she was born weighing 1.7 pounds and was in intensive care for more than three months. She reportedly also suffered a brain hemorrhage and hydrocephalus, leading doctors to implant a shunt to relieve pressure.
WTKR reported that Harris and Smith are still facing felony child abuse charges for the hot water incident. Smith has two other daughters, ages 6 and 8, who are also at the center of a CPS investigation.
A grand jury hearing is scheduled for October 3. In the meantime, Smith and Harris remain jailed without bond.
[Featured image: Latoya Smith, Demont Harris/Norfolk Police Department; Heaven Watkins/WAVY video screenshot]