Mom cleared of charges she faced after kids drowned in locked SUV, Mississippi cops say

A judge has dismissed criminal charges against a Mississippi mother who was arrested after two of her children drowned, according to local media reports.

Jenea Payne, 25, was arrested last week in Leland after police said she left her three children in her locked SUV on March 9 as she shopped at a convenience store. She came back to find the car was missing: It had rolled into nearby Deer Creek, where bystanders and first responders tried to free the children as the SUV floated away, police said. Rescuers saved only one child.

Payne faced charges of child neglect and two counts of negligent manslaughter after the incident, but a judge dropped the charges on Tuesday, the Mississippi Clarion Ledger reports. Judge Laverne Simpson ruled at a preliminary hearing that there wasn’t enough evidence in the case against Payne, WAPT reports.

According to the Clarion Ledger, Leland Assistant Police Chief Marcus Davis said earlier that police charged Payne before consulting prosecutors because “she ended up leaving three minors unattended for a length of time when she went into a store. That’s illegal in itself. That was part of the negligence that led ultimately to their deaths.”

But Washington County District Attorney Dewayne Richardson said it was unusual for police to not consult local prosecutors before deciding on charges in such a case, the Clarion Ledger reported last week.

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“The way the process normally works is that they will do their investigation and turn over a file to my office to review to consider going before a grand jury,” Richardson said, according to the Jackson-based newspaper.

Police said authorities were called to Deer Creek around 5:45 p.m. the day of the drownings on reports that three kids were stuck in a locked Nissan Pathfinder as it drifted through the water. Firefighters and witnesses were at the creek before police arrived, and the fire chief and others went into the water, trying to break open the windows of the floating SUV to rescue the children, police wrote in a Facebook post on the incident.

Only one child, 2-year-old Raelynn Johnson, could be rescued from the SUV as it floated off, police said. The rescuers then had to swim back themselves as the SUV “drifted further down and into the creek,” according to police.

Volunteer firefighters kept hunting for the SUV, and a rescue dive team soon joined the search for the vehicle, which finally turned up at 8 p.m., police said.

A towing company pulled the Nissan out of the water, and the two other children — Steve Smith, 4, and Rasheed Johnson Jr., 1 — were both inside. Police said the Washington County coroner pronounced the boys dead just after 8:30 p.m.

Davis said that authorities suspect the 4-year-old used the keys to turn on the car and that it rolled into the water after it was put in neutral, according to the Clarion Ledger.

Leland police shared a Facebook post last week that appeared to show Payne and the rescued child’s father meeting the people who helped save their daughter from the creek.

Some material in this story originally appeared in an article published by the author on March 10.

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