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Over the objections of their lawyers, a Bloomington mother and daughter were handcuffed and taken to jail after they were convicted Wednesday on two counts each of manslaughter in the death of 22-month-old Demar Joseph-Amir Hicks at their home day care.
Doris Meeks, 48, and Harmony Newman, 22, did not visibly react as a clerk read the verdicts in Hennepin County Judge Mary Steenson Dufresne's courtroom. The jury acquitted both women of a third manslaughter charge involving "culpable negligence," but convicted on charges of child endangerment and child neglect.
Demar died of asphyxiation after being strapped too tightly into a car seat and placed in a dark basement room to watch TV with two other toddlers, according to testimony. Meeks testified that she went out to run an errand and wasn't home when he died.
Prosecutors said Newman, who didn't testify, was home alone with 23 children, nine more than the state licensing limit of 14 for the home. The license also required two adults to be present for 14 children, but Newman was the only adult there. Meeks ran Mama D's 24-hour-a-day, 7-days-a-week day care out of her home.
Assistant Dakota County Attorney Cheri Townsend said the women face four-year prison sentences and asked that they be taken into custody immediately. Defense lawyers Rick Trachy and Craig Cascarano tried to fight that move, saying the women had roots in the community, wouldn't flee and should at least be given until Monday to get their affairs in order.
The judge said no to the defense lawyers and set bail at $10,000 for Newman and $25,000 for Meeks. They both posted bail Wednesday night.
Demar's father, Mario Hicks, clasped his hands and bowed his head in court while the boy's mother, Alexia Coleman, cried quietly and was comforted by family.
"My baby lost his life over something so stupid and careless," Coleman tearfully told reporters later. "That's the least they can get is some jail time."
Demar died Aug. 30, 2008, two days after he was found by other children in the basement, strapped into a car seat, unconscious and drooling with his head dropped to one side.
Mario Hicks said every day is still hard. "You've just got to be strong," he said.
Both parents said Demar was a happy toddler who loved to dance and often kept a smile on the faces of those around him.
Dakota County handled the prosecution of the case because the boy was the grandson of a woman who works for the Hennepin County attorney.
The trial lasted a week, and jurors began deliberations late Monday. They deliberated throughout the day Tuesday and reached a decision about 11 a.m. Wednesday.
Defense lawyers argued that Demar's death was a tragic accident, not the fault of improper supervision.
"Not being there at the right time to stop it is not the same as causing it," Newman's lawyer, Trachy, said in his closing argument this week. He said Mama D's had operated for a decade without problems.
In her closing argument, Townsend said: "You know. We know. The defendants know that you cannot properly supervise 23 children in your care."
Meeks said that, after she woke up Demar at 8:30 on the morning of Aug. 28, 2008, she fed him oatmeal and that he then was brought to the basement room for another nap. A then-10-year-old boy from the day care testified that Meeks told him to bring Demar to the basement and strap him into the car seat in a playpen.
Townsend said state laws do not allow children under age 13 to help with toddlers. The defense had argued that somehow Demar crawled out of one playpen, into another and into the car seat himself.
Although the prosecutor said the women could be sentenced to four years, defense lawyers say they will seek probation.
Alexia Coleman said she was still in shock from the verdict. "I've just been so trapped because I had to hold my composure for over a year," she said, as she began to cry. "I'm ready to let it all go, but it doesn't bring my baby back."
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747