Update: Roman Morales originally claimed to have been insane when he fatally strangled two-year-old cousin Donnie Ro'Mello Romero Jr. at a Lakewood apartment in 2015. But the jury hearing the case ultimately found Morales guilty of first-degree murder under the theory that his bizarre behavior, including claims that he'd somehow been ordered to kill the child, was actually a symptom of psychosis spurred by meth use.
As we've reported, Morales had only been out of jail a week prior to the boy's death, on September 21, 2015. Although he was just 21 at the time of the crime, he had already racked up a lengthy criminal record that included domestic violence, burglary, theft and more.
Family members quoted in Morales's arrest affidavit described him as a meth user who had grown distinctly paranoid. He allegedly claimed that "the mob and the FBI were following him" and had bugged his phone, leading him to conclude that "everyone in the house was going to die."
He also cut out photos of his grandfather, whom he believed to have been in the mafia, under the theory that they meant "something in code" and thought diamond shapes in the carpeting were "symbols of a cult," the report maintained.
Discussions had taken place among his loved ones about taking Morales to the hospital and seeking help for his problems.
Yet, on the morning of the 21st, the affidavit said his mother asked him to watch Donnie while she and her sister — the boy's mother, Tiffany Segura — took the latter's older kids to school.
When they returned, everything seemed fine at first — but a series of odd occurrences followed. For instance, Morales's mom found her son standing in the kitchen wearing cleaning gloves — and he asked for a blanket that he began shoving into a plastic storage tote bin.
Morales later said that Donnie was playing outside on his own — something he wasn't allowed to do. A subsequent search failed to locate the boy, prompting Segura to call 911.
Before police arrived, Morales rode away on his bicycle, allegedly to look for Donnie.
Shortly thereafter, the boy's body was found under the blanket in the tote. He had a cord around his neck and blood was seen around his neck and mouth. He was buried days later in a superhero casket.
After Morales was located and taken into custody, the report maintains, he was questioned by authorities but was evasive until he was given permission to see his mother. When she told him Donnie was dead, Morales reportedly began cursing and threatened to punch her in the throat. He then whispered to her, "I was told to do it."
Who gave him this order? He didn't say.
Morales was promptly charged with the crime, after which he entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Next, according to Pam Russell, spokesperson for the First Judicial District DA's office, which prosecuted the case, "A judge ordered him to the state mental hospital in Pueblo to be evaluated. But the doctors found that he was sane — and they believed that he had been experiencing methamphetamine-induced psychosis."
At that point, Russell continues, Morales's defense attorney withdrew the not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity plea in favor of arguing that his client suffered from a mental condition that fell short of insanity but still governed his conduct.
In response, Russell says, "a second evaluation was ordered, with this one focused on his mental condition. But it came back that he didn't have a mental condition. It said the same thing the first one had — that he suffered from methamphetamine- or substance-abuse-induced psychosis."
To further combat suggestions that Morales wasn't in control of his actions, prosecutors presented evidence of what Russell describes as "kind of a coverup situation. That morning, Mr. Morales was cleaning in the kitchen and there were several other adults in the apartment: the mother of the child, Roman's grandmother, who is elderly and essentially disabled, and a third adult, a cousin who was in the living room on a computer. At that point, the child toddled into the kitchen and the cousin in the living room heard what sounded like a child choking. So he called out, and Mr. Morales said, 'He's choking on a gummy. I'm going to give him something to drink' — and the choking stopped."
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Prosecutors surmise that the child was killed then, Russell goes on, and "Mr. Morales put him into a tote bin and covered him with a blanket and a pillow. After that, the mom came out of the shower and asked, 'Where's Ro'Mello?' Mr. Morales said, 'He went outside,' and since he was so young, everyone started searching frantically for him, but Mr. Morales lingered inside — and that's when we believe he moved the bin containing the child from the kitchen to the living room, where it was usually kept. Then Mr. Morales hopped on a bicycle, telling people that he was going to look for the child."
In the meantime, police had been called, and an officer looking around the apartment subsequently spotted several gummy vitamins in a trash can. However, Russell says, "DNA testing was done on them, and no human DNA was found on them — nothing to indicate that they had ever been chewed."
Prosecutors viewed the vitamins' placement as evidence that Morales had "staged" the scene in an effort to corroborate his story about the child choking on a gummy, she says — and they felt the same way about his claim that he'd located the child's sippy cup in an audio-visual room that was outside the apartment. As a result, they concluded that "Mr. Morales could form the intent" needed to establish guilt, Russell notes. "He knew what he was doing, and he knew what he was doing was wrong."
The jury ultimately agreed. After a two-week trial and a day of deliberation, Morales was convicted of first-degree murder and was quickly sentenced to life in prison.