By Tim Prudente, The Baltimore Sun
In an emotional hearing Tuesday, a Baltimore day care worker admitted to murdering a baby girl who would not nap and was sentenced to 70 years in prison.
Her admission came during a wrenching two-hour hearing in Baltimore Circuit Court. By the end, even the judge cried on the bench.
“I’m just reflecting on everything I heard,” Judge Althea Handy said, composing herself. “There are tears everywhere in this courtroom.”
Handy was on the bench watching a video of the baby’s murder when they brought in the young day care worker.
Leah Walden, 24, wore shackles and a sweatshirt from jail. Her voice was so soft, the judge told her to speak up as she pleaded guilty to the murder.
With her plea Walden, of Windsor Mill, admitted she willfully and deliberately killed 8-month-old Reese Bowman last year at a day care center downtown. It was premeditated: murder in the first degree.
“You thought about it, even though it might have been brief. Do you understand that?” Handy asked her.
“Yes,” Walden said, crying.
Technically, Handy sentenced Walden to life in prison with any time beyond 70 years suspended, meaning she won’t get out until she’s in her 90s if she serves the full sentence.
The facts were undisputed.
Walden returned from lunch to Rocket Tiers Learning Center just east of downtown and found baby Reese would not sleep. She slapped the girl in the crib. She pinned the infant down with one arm; Reese kicked her legs. Walden snatched her from the crib. She pushed her back down. Then she piled blankets over the child’s face.
Reese, who was 8 months and 19 days old, suffocated to death May 23, 2017. Surveillance cameras inside the day care center captured the crime.
In court Tuesday, Assistant State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess said Walden had told a co-worker, “Girl, I’m frustrated … I’m sick of this little b—. I hate this little b— … She makes me want to punch her in the face.”
The video shows Reese motionless in the crib, Leitess told the court.
While the prosecutor spoke, a woman in the gallery raised a pink baby book to her lips. The woman kissed a photo of Reese on the cover.
Walden will be eligible for parole at age 59. Her sister stood and spoke before the judge.
“She’s not a monster. She’s not an evil person. She was frustrated,” Samantha Carlton told the courtroom.
Then she turned to the Bowmans.
“I’m so sorry. With all my heart, I’m sorry.”
Walden herself told the judge she didn’t have training or help at the day care. Crying, she apologized.
“There was not a time in my heart that I wanted this to happen,” she said, softly.
Reese’s death shocked working families in Canton and Fells Point who sent children to the day care. Rocket Tiers has closed permanently.
Reese’s father walked out of the courtroom while prosecutors read the grim details. When he returned, he told the judge of his family’s nightmare and grief.
Justin and Amy Bowman had moved to Baltimore, bought a rowhouse and started their family. Their son, Sawyer, was born first. Then came their daughter, Reese.
She was the first girl born into the Bowman family in four decades. She arrived on the day Mother Teresa was canonized, her family observed.
Later, her funeral would fill the Baltimore Basilica.
The Bowmans both worked and brought their two children to Rocket Tiers. Sawyer was upstairs when his sister Reese was killed.
Justin Bowman stood before the judge, saying all this and hunched over his notes. The father wept as he read.
“I will never see my girl take her first steps,” he said, “hold her, kiss her, comfort her when she’s scared, hear her say ‘I love you.’”
He was trembling.
“I am devastated.”
The couple sold their house, left their jobs and moved away from Baltimore. It was all too much, he said, to live amid the stabbing reminders. He cries at the sight of another father holding a little girl.
He doesn’t DJ part-time anymore, he said. He doesn’t see his old friends. He rarely goes out.
“I have changed and I hate it,” he told the judge.
His brother stood beside him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders.
Something happened after his baby girl was murdered, the father went on. Bowman saw other parents hug their children tighter. He noticed adults call their own parents more.
In his daughter’s short life, he said, Reese inspired them all. Just consider the funeral crowd that filled the basilica.
Then the grieving father turned toward Walden, who sat at the attorney table by him.
Bowman’s voice grew firm. He pointed down at her.
“Reese Annette Bowman accomplished more in her short life than this woman ever will.”