Three years ago, Teresa Moses was sentenced to 25 years to life for brutally beating, starving and torturing to death her 8-year-old son, Raijon Daniels, in a case that horrified the Bay Area. Today, she is free and starting her life anew.
The reason for the stunning reversal? The 30-year-old Richmond native -- found not guilty by reason of insanity for the 2006 killing and confined to a mental hospital -- was determined by her doctors to no longer be a risk to society.
Moses' case, while rare, illustrates the in some ways bewildering, reality of mental illness within the criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to punishment for the most serious of crimes.
"As unfortunate as it may be, a person can suffer a short period of insanity and not be held accountable for the crimes they commit, however heinous they may be," said deputy district attorney Derek Butts, who specializes in mental health cases for the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office. "It is a difficult part of our justice system to accept, especially under circumstances such as these.
"If this was a (not guilty by reason of insanity) release after seven years on a burglary case, nobody would care. But the legal standards for release are the same regardless of the nature of the case."
For Moses' attorney, though, her "uncommonly early" release is a testament to what the mentally ill can accomplish with treatment and support.
"Imagine trying to get a team of doctors and lawyers and a judge to agree and trust that a patient who is committed to life for a dangerous, serious crime would never be dangerous again," said Moses' attorney, deputy public defender Stephanie Regular. "This is why it's so difficult for someone who is committed for life to get out of the hospital. It's nearly an insurmountable task to get all these parties to agree."
In February, the District Attorney's Office objected to Moses' release, but all her doctors at Napa State Hospital -- who deemed her a "model patient" -- were for it, so Butts didn't force a trial.
Moses was released into Contra Costa County's Forensic Conditional Release Program, known as Con-REP, which arranged her housing at an undisclosed location and will oversee her ongoing treatment. If she wavers, she faces a court-ordered return to the hospital.
Moses agreed to be interviewed for this story in the hospital, but her doctors forbade it. She has asked for privacy since being freed in March.
"The incident which led to Ms. Moses' commitment is a horrible tragedy -- a tragedy which Ms. Moses will regret for the rest of her life," Regular said. "She also recognizes that she will need long-term therapeutic support and treatment.
"However, I also think it is important to remember that Ms. Moses was legally insane at the time she committed the crime," Regular said. "The person she was then is not the person who she is now."
A father's feelings
That is something Raijon's father, Desmond Daniels, finds difficult to accept. He remains haunted by the details surrounding the death of his son, whom Moses kept from him for the last three years of Raijon's life. Some days, he said, seem insurmountable.
"It's hard to understand," said Daniels, a 31-year-old medical receptionist. "How can three years pass and she be OK after the acts that she did? How could someone who put Pine-Sol in a child's food, allow a child to jump from a second-story building, how could they be a model patient?
"I still have so many questions," he said.
For at least a year before Raijon died of battered child syndrome in October 2006, the boy was tortured with high-pressure hoses and household chemicals. He slept duct-taped to his bed in his Richmond apartment locked from the outside and monitored by video cameras. His mother called 911 the day before he died after finding his scarred and emaciated body next to a puddle of his vomit.
Moses was arrested that night, and her 3-year-old daughter, who was not physically abused, was placed in foster care. Moses was awaiting trial when she was stripped of all parental rights for the girl, who was Raijon's half-sister.
Two years after Raijon's death, memories of him resurfaced when a similar tragedy unfolded on the other side of Contra Costa County.
Jazzmin Davis, 15, and her twin brother were kept locked in a bare closet in Antioch, starved and tortured by their foster mother and biological aunt, Shemeeka Davis, who, like Moses, suffered from mental illness. Like Raijon, Jazzmin died from the torture.
But while the three court-appointed doctors who evaluated Moses agreed she was legally insane when she abused Raijon, the doctors who evaluated Shemeeka Davis' mental state differed.
The District Attorney's Office opted not to take Moses to trial after hiring a fourth doctor who said the office had no prospect of prevailing. It did take Shemeeka Davis to trial, and despite Davis' illness, she was found legally sane and sentenced to life in prison. Davis, 42, will not be eligible for parole until she's 69.
Insanity is a high bar to reach in the California courts, said Paul S.D. Berg, a psychologist who has been examining people for legal proceedings for 40 years. Not only does a defendant have to have a mental illness or defect, the defense must prove the person could not appreciate the nature and quality of their actions, and they did not know their behavior was morally or legally wrong.
Prosecutors usually have at least one doctor on their side before going to trial in what Berg calls a "battle of the shrinks." Jurors tend to be extraordinarily cynical about doctors' testimony as insanity is often used as a fallback, desperation defense that is rarely successful, he said.
"Insanity is not a medical term but a legal term," Berg said. "A person may be a psychotic, a flaming nut, but that does not mean they are legally insane."
When people are found to be legally insane in the courts, and then are released back into society relatively soon, Berg said "it fuels the public's cynicism and disgust with the system."
"People think, 'Oh god, he/she beat the system,'" Berg said.
Shocked by death
Sue, a friend of Moses' who requested a pseudonym, remembers a visit with her in jail not long after her October 2006 arrest. Moses, in the throes of mental illness, told her she was "shocked" to learn her son had died. She told her all she knew of parenting she had learned from watching ants while growing up in the projects in Richmond.
"Of course, I thought she meant 'aunts,'" Sue said. "No, she meant the insects."
Moses' mental health reports are protected by privacy laws, although an attorney at her 2010 sentencing said Moses had been diagnosed with paranoid delusions.
At least two of the independent evaluators whose opinions led to her being found not guilty by reason of insanity in court, as well as the doctors in Napa, described her condition "in terms of a mental illness that can be fleeting," Butts said.
Sue said she continued to visit Moses throughout the years, as well as exchange letters, and calls Moses' transformation "remarkable."
"For her, being in Napa has been a real gift, and she took it as that," Sue said. "One of her graces is she really wanted to take responsibility and wanted help and took advantage of every opportunity that she could."
Moses participated in every program the hospital has offered, some multiple times, and even became a co-facilitator of a "New Start" program. She has become a prolific writer, and has earned standing ovations at the hospital for her work.
She is not only a model patient, she's a role model to others, said Regular, who noted it's "pretty rare" to see so much support for a patient's release. Regular specializes in mental health cases for the Public Defender's Office, and said early releases are being denied more frequently than in the past.
"I think that recent tragedies involving mental illness as well as a shortage of placements for the mentally ill have forced the retention of many people who are ready for release and could succeed on an outpatient basis if given the chance," Regular said.
"I know it's going to be hard to displace people's fears because her son died on her shift," Sue said. "I just hope that at the end of the day, people give her a chance to re-enter society, withhold judgment and not label her as a child murderer."
Raijon's father said he is still tortured by the circumstances surrounding his son's death, which followed the death of his mother from cancer and preceded the death of his 1-month-old daughter by sudden infant death syndrome that same year. Despite his lingering questions and day-to-day struggles over loss, he said he forgives Moses.
"In the beginning, I really wanted to see her suffer because she had made him suffer," Daniels said. "But I can't pass judgment, I wasn't in the home.
"I forgive her, as crazy as that may sound, because of the faith that I have. Who am I to beat her down and dog her?"
Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley.