Tampa mother accused in daughter’s drowning was insane, attorneys say

TAMPA — Lawyers for the woman accused of wading into the Hillsborough River with her 4-year-old daughter and leaving the girl to drown will argue that she was insane when the crime occurred.

Two mental health experts are prepared to opine that Shakayla Denson did not know what she was doing or the consequences of her actions, according to a written notice of an insanity defense filed last week in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

One expert has identified Denson’s condition as an unspecified psychotic disorder, according to the notice. Another pegged her as having “major depression with psychotic features.”

The notice is a prelude to a trial where the defense will ask a jury to find Denson not guilty by reason of insanity. If that happens, a judge will have to decide the course of Denson’s future mental health treatment, which could include commitment to a state hospital.

In a brief court hearing Tuesday, a prosecutor said the state had retained its own mental health experts to examine Denson in anticipation of an insanity defense. Her next court date is set for July.

Related: 911 caller on river slaying: ‘I could not do anything. I saw how the child sank.’

Denson, 28, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of her daughter, Je’Hyrah Daniels.

On Aug. 2, 2018, Denson stole a car from an auto repair shop on N 40th Street, according to police. She then drove to the area of N Rome Avenue and Aileen Street. Witnesses told police Denson took the girl from the car and dragged her to the river as she struggled. The mother waded into the shoulder-deep water, then let the girl go, police said.

Police divers later found Je’Hyrah’s body near the Columbus Drive Bridge.

Officers arrested Denson nearby. She told them her daughter was now “pure” and with her grandmother, according to court records.

From its outset, the case has featured questions about Denson’s mental state.

Shortly after she was charged, Denson was found incompetent to face trial and spent three months in a state hospital. After undergoing treatment, experts said she understood the charges against her and could assist in her defense.

Weeks before her daughter’s death, Denson received a visit from a child protection worker in response to a report from someone who was concerned that she seemed “overwhelmed and tired” in caring for the girl, who’d been diagnosed with autism. Denson expressed shock and assured the investigator she was a good parent, but acknowledged the challenge of caring for a child with special needs.

The investigator found that Je’Hyrah seemed happy and healthy. The report concluded with no signs of abuse or neglect. A subsequent review by the Department of Children and Families found the case was handled appropriately.

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