A Florida mother has been sentenced to 65 years in prison for abusing and killing her 11-year-old daughter and hiding her body in a freezer.
Keishanna Thomas, 31, pleaded no contest Wednesday to second-degree murder, aggravated child abuse and abuse of a dead body.
She could have faced an automatic life sentence had she been convicted of first-degree murder at trial. Thomas also pleaded no contest to child abuse in a 2015 case related to her then 12-year-old son that prompted the search for her daughter Janiya.
During her hearing, Thomas finally broke her silence when Circuit Judge Susan Maulucci offered an opportunity to speak. There was a pause before she spoke, however, as Assistant Public Defender Franklin Roberts whispered in her ear.
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“I am doing this, your honor, because I feel this is in my best interest, and I don’t want to put my kids through a trial,” Thomas said.
She did not mention Janiya, nor offer any details about how or why she killed her daughter.
Assistant State Attorney Art Brown said he was pleased with the negotiated plea deal because it essentially sent Thomas away to prison for the rest of her life.
“It saved the remaining children, who would have been witnesses in the case, the trauma of having to relive an absolutely horrific series of events,” Brown told the media outside the courthouse.
Inmates in Florida prisons have to serve 85 percent of their sentences, which would put Thomas in her 80s if she were ever able to be free.
“What more could you get out of a trial in getting a first-degree murder conviction,” Brown added. “It safeguards the society and the most traumatized, other than Janiya obviously, were her siblings and this saves them the trauma of reliving this horrific series of events.”
At the time of her death, Janiya weighed only 44 pounds, her right leg had been broken for two to fours weeks beforehand, and there were marks on her hands and feet indicative of being tied, according to her autopsy.
But Janiya’s autopsy was inconclusive in determining the cause of death, although the manner was determined to be homicide.
Brown said forcing Thomas to detail how she killed Janiya was never considered as part of the plea dead, and he suspected that would have been an obstacle. The specific date Janiya was murdered also remains unknown.
“She was last seen by adults on Dec. 15 (2014),” Brown said recalling how neighbors had seen Janiya after the malnourished girl escaped and was searching the garbage for food.
The cardboard box in which Janiya’s body was found had a FedEx shipping label addressed to Thomas. The FedEx package had been delivered on Jan. 7, 2015.
Janiya was first reported missing on Oct. 16, 2015, to police by child protection investigators after her mother refused to tell a judge the girl’s whereabouts. But those investigators had first noticed her missing her on Sept. 25 when they were called to the family’s home to investigate allegations of child abuse involving Janiya’s then 12-year-old brother.
The story made national headlines after her body was found two days after Janiya was reported missing inside a cardboard box in a padlocked freezer at Thomas’ grandmother’s home. Thomas had brought the freezer over under the guise that she was being evicted. But family members grew suspicious after seeing media reports about Janiya being missing. They broke the lock, found Janiya’s body and called police.
Thomas had gone to visit her oldest daughter in foster care between Sept. 25 and Oct. 16, warning her not to tell investigators anything about Janiya. But the girl did, telling them she saw their mother tie up Janiya and dunk her head in water inside the bathroom she was regularly locked in. That bathroom was then cleaned out, the door was open and Janiya was never seen again.
Janiya’s brother recalled coming home one day — believed to be in January or February of 2015 — to also discover Janiya was gone and the bathroom cleaned out.
Detectives would come to learn how Janiya was locked in a bathroom and starved for months before being killed. Investigators with the sheriff’s office’s Child Protective Investigative Division, which handles all welfare cases for the Florida Department of Children and Families, had not sustained a finding of abuse in the family’s home since 2004, however, the same year Janiya was born.
Seven employees with the sheriff’s office within the CPID were disciplined for mishandling cases of alleged child abuse involving Janiya. The most significant discipline any of them received, however, was two days without pay.
Janiya was last seen at Manatee Elementary School sometime in May 2013, and her mother would later tell the school district in August that the girl was being home schooled. It was in June 2014 when she was last seen by officials. That was when a Safe Children’s Coalition case manager recommended closing a services case because Thomas refused to cooperate.