Shanda R. Harris, the mother of an 11-year-old boy who police say was killed by a convicted sex offender, pleaded guilty in Baltimore Circuit Court yesterday to knowingly allowing the man to baby-sit her son.
Harris, as part of an agreement reached with prosecutors, received an eight-year suspended sentence on charges of reckless endangerment and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
The deal spares Harris prison time beyond what she served from Oct. 5, when she was arrested, until she posted bail March 26.
Melvin Lorenzo Jones Jr., 53, is charged with first-degree murder in the stabbing death of Harris' son Irvin in July 2006. Jones, a convicted sex offender who had been ordered to have no unsupervised contact with children, had repeatedly watched Harris' children, including Irvin.
Irvin disappeared one afternoon as he headed to the Belair Food Market in Northeast Baltimore to buy a snowball. His body was found two days later across the street from the Clifton Park Golf Course, in the woods behind a church a block from the family's home at that time on Lawnview Avenue.
Harris, 42, a recovering heroin addict, learned from an employee at her drug treatment program that Jones was a convicted sex offender about a year before Irvin's death.
She still let Jones play an important role in the boy's life, including allowing Jones to volunteer at Collington Square Elementary School, where Irvin was a fourth-grader.
Jones was eventually banned from the school after the principal found out he was a sex offender.
Prosecutors said they proposed a plea deal that spared Harris from jail because she agreed to participate in an extensive parenting and substance abuse program at University of Maryland Medical Center. The Client Services Division of the Office of the Public Defender recommended treatment that will require Harris to attend drug rehabilitation classes five times a week for three months and receive monthly psychiatric evaluations.
"Our focus from the start was what could be done to protect the surviving children," said Julie Drake, an assistant state's attorney who prosecuted the case. "I've never seen a case where anybody became a better parent after they have spent two, three years in jail."
Circuit Judge John M. Glynn called the case troubling but said the treatment plan is best for all parties. "In terms of long-term well-being, this is the best hope that there is," he said. "I'm not an optimist, but this is the best chance anyone has."
Harris declined to comment in court.
The case highlighted a series of breakdowns. A number of caretakers, relatives and friends knew that Jones was a registered child sex offender who had befriended Irvin, but they repeatedly failed to take steps that could have taken Jones off the streets or away from the child.
Jones befriended the Harris family in fall 2002, shortly after he was released from prison. Harris had been dating Jones' brother.
About three weeks before Irvin was stabbed, city police said, they suspected that Jones might have choked the boy at the Inner Harbor and threatened to kill him but they did not follow up on their investigation, and no charges were pursued.
Weeks after Irvin's death, the chief of detectives said he wished his department had done more to protect the child. A detective was assigned to the Inner Harbor case but made only one call, to a cell phone number Harris gave police the day of the incident.
The number did not work.
"We wish everybody, not just us, we wish everybody had done more," Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who was then chief of detectives, told The Sun in a 2006 interview. Bealefeld is now the acting police commissioner.
Jones is scheduled to go to trial Oct. 15 on the murder charge. He pleaded guilty in 1990 to sexually abusing a 4-year-old girl, and in 2002 Jones admitted having sexual contact with a teenage boy.
Jones has not been charged with molesting Irvin. Court testimony yesterday revealed that Jones once sent Irvin a text message that said, "I love you." One of Harris' other children told police that he had seen Jones in bed with Irvin, according to court testimony.
Harris' trial was initially scheduled for February but was postponed for an evaluation on her mental and physical well-being.
Harris has not had contact with her three underage children since October, court officials said.
The juveniles are in the custody of relatives, said Harris' attorney, James L. Scott. Drake said the Department of Social Services will decide whether Harris will be granted custody of her children.