In a courtroom usually set aside for the violence adults unleash on each other, the names of two dead children hung like ghosts.
Then detail by wincing detail, a Mecklenburg prosecutor brought Drakeford Watts and Mariya Owens back to life as he told the public for the first time how they died.
Both are listed among 223 North Carolina homicides for the decade ending in 2016 in which the victims were no older than 4.
In 2016, Drakeford and Mariya died six months apart in Charlotte. The cases of their accused killers both came up on a homicide docket last week.
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Drakeford, according to Assistant District Attorney Jay Ashendorf, suffered through repeated instances of abuse before he died on July 25. He was not yet 2.
On the night before Christmas that same year, a 911 call brought medics rushing to Mariya’s home. She was 4.
In both cases, the mothers’ boyfriends were charged with the killings.
The children’s mothers also appeared in the courtroom. But Jenipher Fofana and Tenisha Wells played starkly different roles.
For court on Thursday, Fofana wore a “Justice for Mariya” T-shirt that bore her daughter’s image. It was Mariya who always made the rest of the family laugh, Fofana said.
Fofana talked through tears as she told Superior Court Judge Bob Bell that after hearing the details of her daughter’s death a few minutes before, she found it hard to forgive Demarcus Heath for what he had done.
Heath, who was seated a few feet away, did not look up. Moments earlier, he admitted his guilt as part of a plea deal with prosecutors in which he will serve at least two decades in a state prison for second-degree murder. In doing so, Heath avoided a first-degree murder trial and a possible mandatory life sentence.
On Christmas Eve 2016, according to Ashendorf, Heath lied to police for several hours about how Mariya died.
First, Heath told police the girl had been sucking on a toy she had received as an early Christmas present. Later, Heath said he had been arguing with Fofana so much that he feared they would break up and he would never see Mariya and her two sisters again. So Heath said he gave Mariya a long hug goodbye, then heard something pop in the little girl’s back, Ashendorf told the courtroom.
A medical examiner found that Mariya had died from a shredded aorta caused by a fractured lower spine — injuries that were not consistent with a hug, Ashendorf said.
A possible clue in what really happened emerged after Heath’s arrest. Ashendorf said a Mecklenburg County Jail inmate came forward to say Heath had confided that he would discipline Mariya and her sisters by making them hold a pushup for up to two minutes.
On Christmas Eve, according to the inmate’s account, the 230-pound Heath had put Mariya in one of these plank positions, then pressed down on her back with his foot. That could have snapped the girl’s lower vertebrae and punctured her aorta, the medical examiner said, according to Ashendorf.
After her former boyfriend’s hearing, Fofana told the Observer she had never seen any signs of abuse in her home, and that she felt her daughter had received a portion of the justice she deserved.
“I just want him to know that he still has to answer to someone about this,” she said of Heath. “Twenty years doesn’t bring my daughter back.”
Patrick Chambers often lectured Tenisha Wells that she had to quit babying her son, Ashendorf said. What if Drakeford Watts grew up to be a sissy? Chambers said, according to the prosecutor. What if he turned out to be gay?
Both Chambers and Wells were initially charged with first-degree murder in connection with the little boy’s death. Chambers awaits trial on the murder charge and has pleaded not guilty.
On Thursday, Wells pleaded guilty to felony child abuse and was sentenced to 22-30 months. She entered the courtroom between two deputies, then gawasve yes-or-no answers to a series of required questions that were part of her plea.
Ashendorf then told the judge that Wells had been aware of Chambers’ mistreatment of Drakeford but had never done anything to stop him, much less notify police.
Two months before his death, the boy had suffered a mysterious burn on his inner thigh. Chambers told Wells that it had been caused by a piece of hot charcoal during a cookout. Authorities said the burn appeared to have been caused by a cigarette lighter.
The toddler had begun to cry whenever Chambers was around him, Ashendorf said, and two days before his death Drakeford was seen walking with a limp.
Despite these and other incidents, Wells “continued to let Chambers be in Drakeford’s life,” Ashendorf said.
The nature of Drakeford’s final injuries remain unclear. On the last night the child was alive, Chambers asked Wells if she had ever seen the boy sleep with his eyes open or while foaming at the mouth, Ashendorf said.
When police arrived, Wells gave police different versions of what had happened, while maintaining that Chambers did not discipline her children. Two days after Drakeford’s death, Wells and Chambers were seen “laughing and joking” at a parenting class, Ashendorf said.
While the prosecutor spoke, Wells sat stoically next to her attorney. Her expression did not change as she was led away, the courtroom emptied, and her son’s name was said no more.