Cynthia Baker denied Friday that she killed 8-year-old Rica Rountree, suggesting instead that the child’s father was a more likely source of the fatal blow that ended the child’s life.
In her first time on the witness stand since she was charged with Rica’s death in December 2018, Baker defended her harsh and abusive treatment of the child and her decision to record her actions.
The 43-year-old Normal woman was convicted in November 2019 of murder in Rica’s death. The girl’s father, Richard Rountree, is serving 8 years for child endangerment. In one video displayed during Baker’s trial, the father is watching Rica struggle to comply with his order to stand on her head.
Jurors at Baker’s trial saw disturbing video of the frail child being forced to hold canned goods as she stood naked in the couple’s home. Testimony from staff at the school Rica attended, and another child who said she saw Baker kick the victim confirmed a pattern of ongoing child abuse.
The doctor who performed Rica’s autopsy chronicled 67 scars on her body, marks he said were the result of chronic child abuse.
Baker testified Friday at a hearing on her request for a new trial based on her claim that her previous lawyer, Todd Ringel, provided inadequate legal assistance. Baker alleges Ringel met with her five times in the jail before her trial and did not share documents with her related to the case.
In response to questions from prosecutor Mary Koll, Baker admitted she and Rountree exchanged a series of text messages about the discipline each was imposing on the child. At one point, Baker defended her decision to force the child to stand wet and naked while holding canned goods. A video depicts Baker pushing her knee into the child’s body and hitting her several times.
“She was just supposed to be standing holding the cans. She wasn’t doing it the correct way,” Baker said of the blows to girl’s back. Rica’s refusal to wash her hair in the shower prompted the discipline, said Baker.
When asked why she recorded the misconduct, Baker said the video was shown to Rica as part of the couple’s behavior modification plan, a statement that prompted the prosecutor to sarcastically characterize the video as “a one-time use, educational film.”
Baker said her longstanding plan to testify at her trial was derailed after Rountree shared a letter with prosecutors that she wrote to him shortly before she was slated to testify. Baker asked her boyfriend to accept the blame for causing the child’s internal injuries.
Baker contends Rountree told her the night of Rica’s death that he had concerns about kicking the child. She said he made similar admissions to her relatives.
The potentially damaging contents of the letter were behind Ringel’s decision to advise Baker to stay off the witness stand, according to her testimony Friday.
“Mr. Ringel told me if I testified, we were going to lose the case,” said Baker.
In his testimony, Ringel explained the legal strategy behind many of his decisions. Several times the case was stalled after information from the defendant and her boyfriend proved to be false, said the lawyer.
For example, a possible explanation for the girl’s injuries put forth by Rountree involved a car trip to Chicago where he was forced to suddenly stop, causing Rica to be pushed forward in her seat belt; that proved to be untrue, said Ringel.
A text message Baker said she received from Rountree about him hitting the child also could not be located, said Ringel.
The lawyer described a sometimes chaotic defense effort, with Rountree and Baker’s relatives heavily involved in the case. He also challenged assertions by Baker that he had promised Rountree he “would not throw him under the bus” for child abuse.
According to Ringel, the opposite was true.
”I told her if the needle points to him, we’re gonna go after him,” said Ringel.
Ringel acknowledged he advised Baker the state could question her about the letter if she testified at her trial. But the decision on whether to testify was Baker’s alone, he said.
“I told her you’ve put us in a very rough spot. At the end of the day, the jury would take it (the letter) as a confession,” said Ringel.
Rica was placed with Baker and Rountree after the child’s mother, Ann Simmons, was arrested on drug charges in 2016. Changes in Rica’s appearance and personality raised concerns for Simmons, who contends she shared her concerns with police and child welfare authorities.
In January 2019, Simmons was sent to prison for 2½ years after a judge said she was making insufficient progress on the terms of her probation related to a 2015 aggravated DUI charge. Weeks after Simmons went to prison, Rica was taken to the hospital, unresponsive, following a days-long bout with belly pain. She died on the operating table at a Peoria hospital.
Lawyers were directed to return Nov. 19 to argue their positions on the motions for a new trial. If the motion is rejected, Judge Casey Costigan said he will move forward with sentencing Baker that day.