The Meleah Davis Criminal Case

The remains found in Arkansas just east of the Texas border have been confirmed to be that of 4 year old Maleah Davis, who had been reported missing in Houston since May 4th. The nation had been gripped by her disappearance and the circumstances surrounding it. Now, with her tragic fate known, the story becomes about the criminal case and assigning responsibility for her death.

The Facts so Far

Derion Vence, Maleah’s stepfather, is the primary suspect. Vence had initially claimed that he was on route to the airport to pick up Maleah’s mother, Brittany Bowens, with his 2 year old son and Maleah in the car. He then claimed he was checking a flat tire when he was attacked by 3 Hispanic men who knocked him out and stole his car with Maleah in it. According to Vence, when he came to he was in Sugar Land with only his son. He then says he was picked up by a woman that dropped him off at a hospital.

Camera footage revealed a different story. On May 3, the day before Maleah was reported missing, a camera captured Vence carrying a black bag in a laundry basket. A video camera from a neighbor’s home the next day shows Vence leaving for the airport with only his son. Surveillance footage at the hospital also shows that Vence was dropped off at the hospital in the car he says was stolen. That allegedly stolen car was later found in Missouri City by police K-9 units trained to find cadavers on May 9th.

Vence was arrested on May 11th. Vence so far has only been charged with tampering with evidence but he is the sole suspect at this time. Tampering with evidence is a second degree felony that carries a maximum of 20 years in prison if the evidence altered, destroyed, or concealed is a human corpse. A warrant was issued today to collect his cellphone data including his geolocation which would let police know if he had traveled into Arkansas to dispose of the body.

Obviously, a tampering charge is the least of Vence’s worries. Activist, Quanell X, claims that Vence had admitted to him that he put Maleah’s body in a trash bag, put the bag in the trunk of a car, and then dumped the body in a wooded area in Arkansas. Quanell X briefly served as Bowens’ spokesperson before severing ties with her citing inconsistencies in her story. He has also stated that he believes one of Vence’s family member is aware of what actually happened to Maleah.

Possible Defenses for Derion Vence

Prosecutors are probably looking to charge Vence with First degree murder since the victim in this case was under the age of 6. The defense of Vence is already shaping up in interesting ways. Vence will undergo a mental health assessment by court order to determine whether he has a mental illness or intellectual disability. This does not necessarily mean that Vence’s defense attorneys are gearing up for an insanity defense. In fact, if it is found that he is mentally incompetent he may not have to stand trial at all.

A defendant must be competent to stand trial, meaning he must be able to understand the proceedings against him, assist in his own defense, and be able to make decisions about his case. If a court deems him incompetent then he cannot be made to stand trial until he becomes competent.

The insanity defense on the other hand is a type of defense during trial. The insanity defense requires proof that at the time the crime was committed, the defendant did not know what he was doing or that at the time of the offense the defendant did not know his actions were wrong.

Both avenues of defense would be very difficult to pull off. The insanity defense may be popular in tv and film but rarely is it invoked in the real world, much less is it ever successful. Competency to stand trial is also a relatively low bar to clear and even if Vence is declared mentally disabled he could still be declared competent to stand trial as long as he had a basic understanding of the case.

The two more likely windows of defense right now are either shifting the blame to Maleah’s mother, Brittany Bowens, or by claiming that Vence’s confession to Quanell X was directed by the police and was obtained through illegal coercion.

Vence’s defense attorneys have already moved to obtain cellphone data to find out if Quanell X was sent by the police. If police coerced Vence through Quanell X that may be a violation of his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination and his Fourth Amendment due process rights.

In the United States it is not illegal to lie to a defendant to obtain a confession but it is illegal to coerce a person to confess. Deciding whether something is illegal coercion depends on the totality of circumstances of the interrogation. A court can consider the behavior of the police and the characteristics of the suspect. Characteristics of the suspect that can be considered include the defendants mental capacity, which would make Vence’s mental health assessment an important factor again in his defense.

Proving coercion is difficult to do since the Supreme Court’s totality of the circumstances test is fairly unclear. The Supreme Court for instance has declared that police who told a defendant that a confession could save his son’s life were being improperly coercive but police that lied and told a suspect that his accomplice had already confessed had not been overly coercive.

Even if the defense is able to get the court to declare that the confession was obtained through impermissible coercion, that probably would not be the end of the case. In all likelihood that would simply mean that confession could not be used in court against Vence. As of now that confession is a damning piece of evidence and having it thrown out could be crucial.

Of course, the investigation is still ongoing and more evidence assuredly will come to light. It is still the early stages of the case but hopefully justice will be delivered for Maleah Davis.