A woman has been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the drowning death of a 5-year-old and infant in Wilmington last year.
The trial for Kula Pelima, charged with two counts of first-degree murder, lasted two hours. She concedes she drowned the two children in her care and beat one with a hammer and tried to light him on fire, but three experts who examined her determined she was legally insane.
“All of these professionals came to the same conclusion,” said Deputy Attorney General Eric Zubrow conceding the verdict.
They came from an expert at the Delaware Psychiatric Center and doctors hired by the defense and the prosecution.
To use insanity as a defense, the defendant and his or her attorney must show that a “mental illness” or “defect” caused the person to “lack substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct,” according to Delaware law.
Pelima waived her right to a jury trial and New Castle County Superior Court Judge Charles Butler said he had “no problem” finding her not guilty by reason of insanity given the expert opinions.
Pelima will continue treatment at the state’s psychiatric center and her commitment there will be reviewed in one year and then by request, said Kathryn van Amerongen, Pelima’s attorney.
If experts find that she is no longer a danger to society, she may be allowed back into the public.
The verdict is rare, and it is even more uncommon that experts hired by the defense and state agreed on the defendant’s mental state, van Amerongen said.
“It is a very difficult standard,” van Amerongen said. “That is why you don’t hear of it happening often.”
The trial was brief but the details by the state’s only witness, a Wilmington detective, left no room to doubt Pelima killed the children.
According to police and court records, Pelima, a Liberian immigrant, called 911 at 3:45 a.m. Oct. 16, 2017, because she was concerned about her immigration status and worried about what could happen to her because her boyfriend and father of the two boys had been detained in Pennsylvania by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
After the call, a Wilmington police officer visited Pelima at her Trinity Vicinity-area apartment. They gave her the number of a hotline that could perhaps help, police said.
Pelima called the police again around 8:30 a.m., reporting that she drowned the children.
She told an officer at the scene that the children were “physically and emotionally abusing” her and that she killed them, Wilmington Detective Devon Jones told the court.
Pelima was the biological mother of the infant.
She went into horrific detail in her interview with Jones.
She dumped oil on five-year-old Alex Epelle and tried lighting him on fire but his jacket would not catch, Jones said.
She said she took Solomon Epelle, who was 3 months old, held him at chest height and dropped him on his back into an empty bathtub. She plugged the drain, turned on the water and then returned to Alex, Jones said.
She poured a different oil on Alex and tried to light him on fire again. She struck him repeatedly with a hammer and a frying pan. She also tried to strangle him, Jones said.
She then took him to the bath and held his head underwater for minutes, Jones said.
She told Jones she had considered burning the apartment. Police found oil in containers on the floor of the apartment and on Alex during his autopsy. Her phone included internet searches for flammable oils, Jones testified.
On a couch inside the apartment, a hammer sat beside a Wilmington Police victim services card given to her when she first called police earlier in the morning.
She had told police she had felt “overwhelmed” at the time of the killing. She told Jones that she felt “relieved, strong and fearless,” after killing the children, the detective told the court.
Citing medical privacy, van Amerongen declined to provide specifics about the disorders Pelima suffers from. She did say that Pelima faced “a lot” of depression and other issues.
She said her client has benefited from ongoing treatment.
“To know her today, it is hard to reconcile these acts.”