Covington gets 50-year sentence in death of 3-year-old

Published 4:30 pm Friday, May 11, 2018

A Carter County man received a 50-year prison sentence Friday afternoon after pleading guilty to a child abuse charge in connection with the 2016 death of his 3-year-old stepson.

Demetrius Deshawn Covington, 30, of Elizabethton, entered an Alford Plea to one count of Aggravated Child Abuse. An Alford Plea is not an admission of guilt. A defendant entering an Alford Plea agrees to be found guilty without admitting he or she committed a crime, usually as part of a negotiated plea agreement that gives them a lesser sentence than they would have faced had they been found guilty by a jury.

Covington was originally indicted on charges of first-degree murder by aggravated child neglect and first-degree murder by aggravated child abuse. As part of the plea agreement, the murder by aggravated child neglect charge was dismissed, and the murder by aggravated child abuse charge was amended to aggravated child abuse.

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Under the plea agreement, Covington received a 50-year prison sentence and is not eligible for parole.

“Based on the sentencing structure in this state, you must serve 100 percent of that sentence,” Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice told Covington during the hearing.

State law also sets a maximum of 15 percent for any sentence reduction credits which Covington can receive. That means the least amount of time Covington will serve in prison is 42 years and 6 months.

The charges against Covington stem from an investigation by the Elizabethton Police Department into the death of 3-year-old Ja’Kari Phillips in November 2016. The child’s mother, Ayonjaleea Phillips, 27, formerly of Elizabethton, was also indicted in the case and charged with aggravated child endangerment. She entered a guilty plea to that charge in April and received an 18-year prison sentence, which she must serve at a minimum of 85 percent before becoming eligible for parole.

The investigation into the child’s death began on Nov. 18, 2016, after Phillips called 911 while taking her son to the hospital and reported he was having trouble breathing.

While en route to the hospital the child’s condition worsened and Phillips pulled over to begin performing CPR.

The child was taken to a local hospital and died on Nov. 22 as the result of his injuries, which court documents state were considered to be “non-accidental trauma and were not self-inflicted.”

According to court documents, the child suffered numerous bruises to his face, neck, torso, back, bottom, legs and foot. Court documents also state medical tests revealed the child had internal injuries, including swelling in his brain and a subdural hematoma, which is a collection of blood outside of the brain usually caused by severe head injuries.

Phillips told investigators she had left her son in Covington’s care while she was at work. According to police, she said Covington called her at work and asked her to come home, saying the child may have fallen in the bathtub.

In court on Friday, Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks said Covington admitted to striking the child in the face and head, sometimes with a hairbrush, during an interview with investigators following his arrest. He said investigators also obtained copies of text messages between Covington and Phillips which showed that about two weeks before the child died Covington admitted to blacking the child’s eyes but promised not to do it again.

Despite the number of injuries listed in the medical reports, Brooks said the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy could not determine whether the abuse caused the child’s death or if it had been drowning.

As part of the court proceeding on Friday, Rice asked Covington if he had anything he would like to say to the court or to family members of the victim.

“I apologize to everybody,” Covington said, adding things got out of hand and he never meant for this to happen. “I wasn’t being the father I was supposed to be.”

Members of Ja’Kari Phillips were allowed to give victim impact statements to the court on Friday.

Lajonya Hopkins, mother of Ayonjaleea Phillips and grandmother of Ja’Kari Phillips, was the first of two family members to speak before the court.

“You deserve death,” Hopkins said as she looked at Covington. “You are nothing but a waste of air. The spawn of Satan. You are pure evil, and there is a special place in Hell waiting for you.”

Hopkins told Covington she hates him and that she will never forgive him for taking her grandson from her.

Delores Lyons, a relative of Ja’Kari’s biological father, spoke on behalf of the Phillips family.

“I don’t hate you, I hate what you done,” Lyons said, adding that to hate him or not forgive him would be unChristian behavior.

The death of Ja’Kari left “a big void” in the lives of his family. Lyons said she wants God to watch over Covington and keep His hand on him.

“I don’t know why you did what you did, but I’m going to pray for you,” she told Covington. “I hope you accept God in your life and realize what you done.”