Amber Dowen, the mother of the 4-year-old boy discovered on the eve of his death two years ago, dehydrated and starving in the cab of an 18-wheeler, never finished the letter she started writing in jail last month to her mother.
But Monday afternoon, Judge Ronald Stephens read that incomplete note, raw sentiment scrawled on lavender stationery, before handing down a more lenient sentence than the plea deal brokered by the prosecutor and defense attorney.
"I hate myself for what happened. I hate the memories good and bad," Dowen wrote to her mother last month. "The good ones make me think of what I screwed up and I keep remembering when we flagged down that cop. Randy was so frail. How did I not see it?"
Dowen, 22, arrested in September 2005 for the death of her son Randolph Thomas, was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Stephens denied Dowen's request to abandon a guilty plea she entered in September for second-degree murder and felony child abuse. He said she had not proven that her legal counsel was insufficient, nor showed that she was coerced or confused by the agreement worked out by Michael Driver, her defense attorney, and Mitchell Garrell, an assistant district attorney.
But in deciding against the 17-year minimum suggested by the plea arrangement, Stephens said he was moved by Dowen's letter. In hearings before the sentencing, he observed, the mother had shown little emotion.
"I've noted -- I don't know whether it would be lack of remorse or what would be a lack of human sensitivity," Stephens told Dowen.
But late last week, Stephens ordered all the inmate's jailhouse correspondence seized and turned over to him.
Richard Dowen, Amber's husband and Randolph's stepfather, pleaded guilty in September to second-degree murder and felony child abuse for the death of the boy. Richard Dowen got 26 years in prison; prosecutors have described him as a controlling husband who instilled fear in his wife.
Not once during the two years that the Dowens have been in and out of Durham County courtrooms have they explained what happened to Randolph, who was 3 feet tall and weighed 19 1/2 pounds at his death in 2005 -- about half the normal weight for a boy his age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Horrors of her own
But a forensic psychologist's evaluation of Amber Dowen depicts a troubled and chaotic childhood, a youth tainted by an alcoholic and sexually abusive father. That report and Amber Dowen's own correspondence provide a better understanding of how the truckers arrived at that morning on Aug. 31, 2005, when a sheriff's deputy found Randolph wrapped in a blanket on his mother's lap.
The Dowens, from Riverside, Texas, spent much of their life on the road, living in the cab of their truck.
They were in Durham when they stopped on the shoulder of Miami Boulevard near Interstate 40. Richard Dowen flagged down a sheriff's deputy and reported that his stepson was ill.
The child died the next day of malnutrition and complications from aspiration pneumonia. Investigators concluded that the couple had started starving Randolph five months earlier.
Dowen attempted to explain what happened to her mother in the letter she started on Dec. 7 and picked up again on Dec. 9.
"Mama, I don't know how this happened," Amber Dowen wrote on the lined paper. "I don't understand ... I love(d) Randy so much, how did I let him die? How did I go from not being able to leave him for a day without going crazy to loosing [sic] him for the rest of my life?"
Amber Dowen, who married her husband when she was 17 and he was 29, was in a conflicted relationship from the start, according to an evaluation by Claudia R. Coleman, a forensic psychologist.
"Ms. Dowen grew up in a chaotic and abusive home environment," Coleman wrote in an April 27, 2007, report to Driver, Dowen's attorney. "Her parents were never married and her father, who was 27 years older than her mother, was involved with alcohol and drug use. He repeatedly sexually abused Ms. Dowen when she was young,"
Amber Dowen, described as a sad and dejected child, started receiving mental health treatment as a 7-year-old. She dropped out of school in the 10th grade when she became pregnant with Randolph. She recalled his birth in the letter to her mother.
"I keep having flashbacks of Randy, in the hospital when he was on the far side, before he got an incubator," she wrote. "I remember the first time I held him. I hear his laugh and smell his breath. I can still see him in the hospital when [her daughter] Jazzy was born. He was so big and protective and happy!"
But over a 15-month period beginning in 2004, Amber Dowen lost control over her son, the psychologist said. Richard Dowen had begun to abuse Randolph.
"He would become angry and psychologically abusive toward Ms. Dowen if she tried to intervene," Coleman wrote.
As Richard Dowen became more controlling, Amber Dowen became emotionally overwhelmed, Coleman said. "She was concerned about her husband punishing her son by withholding food and would sneak food to the child during the night when her husband was sleeping."
Fear of sleeping
Amber Dowen began to take over-the-counter stimulants so she could stay awake, Coleman said. She was afraid of what her husband might do to Randolph if she went to sleep.
The Dowens had a young daughter who took up much of her mother's time, and, according to Coleman's report, Amber Dowen was pregnant at the time of her arrest, but miscarried.
"I took the easy way out and gave up!" Amber Dowen wrote to her mother. "I quit on Randy."
Garrell agreed to the plea bargain, he said, because of medical evidence showing that Randolph might have had kidney problems that could have played a role in his low body weight.
"It doesn't matter how he died, it's my fault," Dowen told her mother. "I let it happen. If I wouldn't have married Richard," Amber Dowen wrote to her mom. ... If I wouldn't have, Randy would still be alive. I would still have my baby."
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