Mariya Kelly stabbed her mother one time in the chest. The knife penetrated 9 cm, piercing the membrane around the heart, and puncturing an important artery. Her mother, Melissa Kelly, quickly succumbed to blood loss from the injury. Today, Mariya Kelly entered a plea to Manslaughter charges, and pursuant to an agreement, was sentenced to 15 years in Florida State Prison. Ms. Kelly was just 21-years old when she killer her mother.
Ms. Kelly had claimed self-defense, saying her mother attacker her and struck her in the head prior to her using the knife, with which she had been cutting strawberries in the kitchen. We covered the Stand Your Ground Motion before Judge Branning a few weeks ago, and the court did not find that she was justified in using deadly force that could have allowed the case to be dismissed before trial. She faced a jury trial, and a potential 30-year sentence, before accepting the plea offer.
The Stand Your Ground hearing was emotional, including testimony from family members about the incident and previous disputes with her mother. Several family members also testified at the sentencing hearing today, including her brothers, one of whom testified they hoped she rots in jail, while the other called her a “murderer” and a “monster.” There was also testimony that she had previously been part of a cult known as the “Carbon Nation”, which is known for polygamy and nudism, but there is no indication that had anything to do with the incident involving her mother. Without a doubt, the situation was a tragedy and that the single strike with a deadly weapon tore a family apart. In Florida, convicts must serve 85% of their sentence, so she will not be eligible for release for more than a decade.
Mariya Kelly, who was arrested in 2020 and charged with Manslaughter with a Weapon in the killing of her mother, filed a Stand Your Ground motion to have her charges dismissed. Essentially, she is arguing that she was justified in using force against her mother in the incident. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law permits the Defense to have the charges thrown out prior to trial unless the state is able to prove the the force was not justified.
It is undisputed in this case that the alleged victim’s death was caused by a knife wielded by Ms. Kelly. The Defense argues that the mother was the aggressor. The legal question is whether the fear claimed by Ms. Kelly justifies her use of deadly force against the victim, who was her mother. There was a single injury from one stab wound to the chest which was fatal.
At the Stand Your Ground hearing today, the Defendant’s brother gave dramatic testimony as a witness to the event. He testified that their mother was unarmed, but that an argument ensued and that the alleged victim took multiple swings at the Defendant, before the Defendant struck her mother one time with the knife. The victim’s mother, the grandmother of the Defendant, testified to a prior incident of the alleged victim beating Ms. Kelly.
Ms. Kelly took the stand to testify about the incident. She testified that her mother got upset and attacked her, flailing wildly and striking her several times about the head and upper torso. She said she was already holding the knife because she was preparing strawberries for her young daughter. She said the victim saw the knife and attacked her, when she wouldn’t put it down. She testified that she was scared, due to the prior beating and since her mother was quite a bit larger than she was (some six inches and 70 pounds). She said she struck her out of fear, one time to stop the attack. She admitted on cross that her mother was unarmed, and did not threaten her verbally, but that she was afraid of what might happen.
The legal question for whether the use of force is justified turns not on whether the victim was armed, but whether the Defendant had a reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury at the time of the offense. While that fear is difficult to show when only one person is armed, it’s not unheard of. The recent Tampa case of Curtis Reeves is a high-profile example. Reeves was involved in a dispute at a movie theater, and the other man threw popcorn at him. Reeves also asked for a dismissal under the Stand Your Ground law, but the motion for immunity was denied. However, he successfully argued self-defense at trial and was acquitted by a jury just last month. Key to his defense was his compelling testimony before the jury about his fear at the time.
It was a sad, difficult day in court today. Regardless of the outcome, the case is clearly a tragedy. The judge denied the motion to dismiss, but the case will proceed to a trial, potentially starting at the end of this month.
Obviously, 110 years for an accident is a lot of time- it’s life in prison, even where four people died, the crash was due to an accident. The driver’s brakes failed, but the prosecutor was able to convict him on 27 counts for the actions he took after the mechanical issues arose. At one point, it was argued that he should have slammed into another truck, essentially committing suicide, as opposed to attempting the evasive maneuvers that resulted in the crash. The judge ultimately suggested that he would not have sentenced Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, 23, so harshly if he had not been required to do so by law.
This article indicates the most serious charges were the four counts of vehicular manslaughter for the people who passed away, but due to the violent crimes mandatory sentencing strictures, Colorado required harsher sentences on the assault charges than the manslaughter charges. The judge’s hands were tied, and had to sentence the six assault charges to 10 years each, and mandated that they be sentenced consecutively. Further, the 10 attempted assault charges each carry a mandatory five-year sentence, also required to be served consecutively. Add those up, and the judge had no choice but to enter a 110-year sentence.
For the remaining charges, including the manslaughter charges, the judge entered a sentence of 30 years in prison, to be served non-consecutively. The judge gave a sever sentence for the deaths that the jury had found Mr. Aguilera-Merderos culpable for, but did not seek a sentence that would surely extend beyond his lifespan. One can clearly extrapolate that he did not feel such a sentence was appropriate, but was bound to make it based on the laws in Colorado and the way the prosecutor chose to bring the charges. The judge even suggested that he was bound by law to the sentence, and that none of the victims (and families) who gave testimony suggested that a sentence beyond life was appropriate. The mandatory minimums resulted in a sentence that was beyond what the judge felt was just, but took away the discretion of the court to apply reason.
We have decried the issues with mandatory minimum sentences here before, and the issue is prevalent in Florida, as well. This reminds me of the Marissa Alexander assault case that resulted in a disproportionate sentence a few years ago- and ultimately lead to changes in Florida law. As a general rule, mandatory minimum sentences may be well intentioned, but where there is no discretion, will ultimately be used to an unjust end.
Fortunately, Colorado does have a provision that would permit the court to revisit these sentences after 6 months. Indeed, the judge referenced that the sentences would be revisited, suggesting that he may be open to a showing that would permit them to be reduced. Based on everything stated, that appears to be a likely, and just, result.
I also want to add that Colorado’s assault statute includes reckless behavior (“manifesting extreme indeference to the value of human life”), which is unusual. The crime of assault historically required the intent to place fear/strike/or injure the victim. So, even though Mr. Aguilera-Mederos did not manifest any intent, he was convicted and is now subject to the ‘violent’ crime sentencing structure. That suggests that the sentene may be of a type more sever that intended by the legislature, but certainly applicable under Colorado’s definition of assault. (Usually, behavior so reckless to endanger life is criminally punishable, but not usually as assault. That’s the type of language for manslaughter or reckless driving in most jurisdictions.)
An arrest was made this week in the tragic death of a 1-year-old in Charlotte County in October. Deputies have charged Shahzad Sayed in relation to the drowning of his young child in the pool of their Deep Creek home on October 3, 2020. The primary charge Sayed is facing is Aggravated Manslaughter: the charge is aggravated because a child was the victim. The bigger hurdle for the state will be convincing a jury to convict the grieving father of manslaughter for a tragic, accidental drowning.
The Florida statute on manslaughter does permit a conviction for manslaughter by culpable negligence: it does not require an intentional act if the negligence of a caretaker is especially egregious. That is, someone can be found guilty of the crime by omission instead of an act; but the law saw the omission must evince a state of mind so wanton or reckless it could be considered intentional. Case law has said that the state must prove a gross and flagrant violation of the duty of care that causes injury; a course of conduct showing reckless disregard for human life or the entire want of care raising the presumption of indifference of consequences. A jury may find that the facts support such a finding, but it’s a high bar.
According to news reports, detectives claim that Mr. Sayed “knowingly” went to bed while his two small children were still up. The resultant injury to the child is per se evidence of negligence, but whether it rises to the level of culpable negligence is less clear. The child opened a door and went out to the pool area, where there were no safety devices. Certainly, pool gates are expected safety devices in homes where small children reside, but that omission alone is not enough to rise to the level of culpable negligence. Does the fact that the father fell asleep demonstrate a reckless indifference to life? It’s an issue on which reasonable minds could certainly disagree, and will likely be difficult to convince a jury beyond and to the exclusion of any reasonable doubt.
Mr. Sayed has also been charged with some drug related offenses, reportedly due to videos the detectives found that purportedly show drug transactions, and evidence of drugs in the common areas of the home. However, there’s no indication that there was any harm to the children due to the drugs, which means it’s a non-factor as to the manslaughter charge. Those charges may even be severed from the other for trial, so that the jury doesn’t consider them together. (Though, if they have evidence of his drug use the night of the accident, that may be admissible.) The legal aspects of the case are interesting, though the loss of a young child is obviously tragic. Regardless of what Mr. Sayed is convicted of, he will have to live with this the rest of his life.
Jury selection started this morning in Fort Myers in the trial of Rafael Carrion, accused in the death of a neighbor’s child that was in his care. He told investigators that the child must have fallen or something, but the injuries were severe and consistent with a violent beating. We broke the news that Carrion had just been released from prison at the time he was arrested. The child’s father told Fox 4 that he felt the mother should have been arrested, too… but there is no indication that she has been charged. Carrion is charged with second degree murder, aggravated manslaughter, and aggravated child abuse, and is facing life in prison.
Luis Gonzalez was tried and convicted for Manslaughter with a Weapon, and Failing to Render Aid in an accident involving death. Both are 1st Degree Felonies, with penalties of up to 3o years. Judge Edward Volz maxed him out, 30 years on each count, to be served consecutively. In Florida, prisoners must serve at least 85% of their sentence before release, so that is 51 years before the possibility of release, less any credit for time he already served. The fact that he fled the country for several years before being brought to justice likely did not favorably influence the judge at sentencing, nor did the violent nature of the death. While the state proceeded on a manslaughter theory, there was evidence that he backed over her, striking her a second time before driving off. An appeal will naturally follow.
Opening statements were yesterday afternoon. As I anticipated, the primary defense will be to challenge the State’s circumstantial case that Gonzalez was the driver. Although the case is circumstantial (no witness saw the collision that killed Tia Poklemba), it is still fairly strong for the state. Ms. Poklemba was seen getting into Gonzalez’s car not long before she was killed. The State says forensics will prove that she was killed by that car, and that he told officers he took her to 7-11 and dropped her off, but video shows nobody getting out of his car there. Finally; that since Gonzalez fled afterward, leaving his pregnant girlfriend behind, that shows he was guilty. The Defense said there were two more men that got into the car with them, and that those men later forced out Gonzalez, prior to Poklemba’s death. The Defense also challenged the findings of the accident reconstructionist, which they may use to argue that the state cannot prove the intentional act necessary for manslaughter. A true accident won’t be a manslaughter, but could still lead to a conviction for leaving the scene.
Both the Naples News and News Press are live-Tweeting the trial: